“The Good Lord Bird,” James McBride’s 2013 novel about a young boy in abolitionist John Brown’s ragtag army, is probably the funniest book about slavery you will ever read.
His 1996 memoir, “The Color of Water,” about his mother’s difficult life — mistreated by her harsh father, impoverished after her husband died — might be the funniest book about abuse and poverty you will ever read.
“It’s just my nature,” McBride said recently in a lengthy phone interview from Pittsburgh, where he was to deliver a lecture. He will speak on Wednesday night at the University of Minnesota.
“It’s just how I am. I just don’t see the point in sitting around hollering the blues over things you have no control over. It’s all in God’s hands. If you don’t have humor, you’re not going to make it. You’re going to be one of those people who walks around with your head about to explode.”
McBride laughs easily, gently, a quiet chuckle more than a guffaw, but this does not mean that he finds everything funny. Humor, he notes, depends on context. He looks at some of the things that pass as funny in mainstream culture — such as Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories — and he is left cold.
“I don’t come from Lake Wobegon, and that world is not mine. It’s not that funny to me,” he said. “It’s funny to other people, and I’m not judging it, but the world that I come from is not considered funny by other people as well. There’s so much pain in it.”
McBride, 57, has three children and lives in New Jersey and New York, where he is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University. His mother, Ruth, was the daughter of Polish Jews who settled in Virginia. When Ruth moved to New York and married a black man, a minister named Dennis McBride, her parents said kaddish and sat shiva for her; in their eyes, she was now dead.
James was the eighth of her 12 children, and as a boy he sometimes wished that his mother were a different color.
“By age 10, I was coming into my own feelings about myself and my own impending manhood,” he wrote in “The Color of Water,” “and going out with Mommy, which had been a privilege and an honor at age 5, had become a dreaded event. I had reached a point where I was ashamed of her and didn’t want the world to see my white mother. … I grew secretive, cautious, passive, angry and fearful, always afraid that the baddest cat on the block would call her a ‘honky,’ in which case I’d have to respond and get my ass kicked.”
The memoir is filled with paragraphs like that one — painful truths written in a way that makes the reader laugh.
“People process pain differently,” McBride said. “My family, we were pretty humorous about things that went on. It wasn’t like we went around morosely staggering around trying to decide if we should eat matzoh balls or fried chicken. It wasn’t like we were lollygaggin’ and sobbin’ and writin’ poems about how we were so screwed up.
“I’d seen my mother suffer quite a few humiliations and difficulties in her life. She was always pretty nonchalant about it. As long as there was food to eat at the next meal, there was always something good.”
The layers of Onion
“The Color of Water” spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. “The Good Lord Bird” won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction, beating books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders and Rachel Kushner. McBride was so surprised by the win that he took the podium wearing his porkpie hat, his dinner napkin still clutched in his hand and no speech prepared.
He told the audience that he would not have felt bad had any of the other authors won. Then he smiled a slow, dimpled smile, and added, “But it sure is nice to be here.”
The award citation praised him for taking “a pivotal, troubled sequence in American history — John Brown’s abolitionist campaign” and telling it “in a voice as comic and original as any we have heard since Mark Twain.”
That voice comes from Onion, the young slave boy who narrates the book, but it also comes from McBride’s childhood. “I grew up in a house, in a community, in a church, where everyone pretty much talked like that,” he said. “The adults were all from the South, and these are the people that I really admired as a kid. My stepfather, my godfather, my uncles — they were all like that.”
Onion is naive, shrewd and self-serving. He’s not sure he wants his freedom because he ate better before he joined Brown’s army. He’s looking out for himself, not for some larger cause, and his observations of Brown and the world around him are keen and hilarious.
“I loved Onion,” McBride said. “I loved what he represented and tried to be, and even though he was a manipulating, conniving, shriveled-up con artist, he was also a person who had a good heart. I think that’s what it boils down to — what’s in a person’s heart.”
The character brings lightness to what could have been a heavy book about violence, oppression, war and freedom. “And it needs that lightness in order to breathe,” McBride said. “Otherwise, it becomes one of those horribly depressing books. I think sometimes when I walk through bookstores that America must want to be depressed. There are a lot of good trees wasted on some of these books.”
Onion brought a bit of brightness to McBride, too, while he was writing the novel. “My mother died in January 2010. My niece died a couple of weeks later. And then my marriage fell apart,” he told the National Book Award audience. “So it was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow around. And that was Onion Shackleford.”
A jazzy writer
McBride speaks softly, slowly, his thoughts seldom traveling in a straight line. He riffs, he meanders — one idea leads to another, which takes him in some other direction, but give it time; he’ll bring it back around.
He is, after all, a jazz musician; when he was on book tour for “The Good Lord Bird,” he brought his band along — a drummer, bass player, pianist and guitarist, with McBride on saxophone. (There are clips on YouTube, or go to McBride’s website, www.jamesmcbride.com, and listen.)
“The Good Lord Bird” is being made into a movie by Spike Lee, starring Jaden Smith as Onion. While McBride is a producer of the film, he’s not otherwise much involved; instead, he’s working with historian Taylor Branch, “Homicide” author David Simon and others on “Parting the Waters,” an HBO series based on Branch’s trilogy about the history of the American civil rights movement.
Branch “is brilliant; I mean, he is brilliant,” McBride said. “The more I read those books the more glad I am that I don’t do historical nonfiction. Taylor Branch is — there are certain people who are just a cut above, they just have a certain touch. It’s really a refreshing change for me, to be involved with so many good writers.”
Up before the birds
To get everything done — McBride is still on book tour, although it is winding down, and he just turned in a nonfiction manuscript about the life of James Brown — “I wake up at 4:30 every morning, including this morning, and I get to it. I can write anywhere. I don’t need birds twittering.”
He usually writes in longhand: “There’s a lot to be said for an eraser,” he said. “Also, pencil and paper allows you to daydream.
“I think one of the most challenging things that exists for writers is the ability to disconnect. That’s really, really hard. Particularly for those of us who have children. You always worry if you turn the cellphone off they’ll be hanging off of Mount Rushmore by a fingernail, trying to call you, and you turned off the phone.”
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302 On Twitter: @StribBooks