This book contains some potentially triggering themes/scenes, check content warnings before reading.
‘It’s not possible to forget anybody you’ve destroyed.’
This is the first of many lines I underlined as I read “Another Country”, and might be the most succinct way to summarize James Baldwin’s beautifully dark, nuanced magnum opus.
I remember lines I love, thoughts that strike me. So I’m not usually someone who writes in the books I read. The gorgeous, lyrical style of Baldwin felt too dense for me to commit every striking sentiment to memory however. 50 pages in, it became clear I was going to encounter plenty of contemplations worth marking for another glance.
His writing isn’t just pretty. Baldwin’s descriptions of his characters’ feelings, of their acts of love & self-loathing, of the streets of 50’s New York are – as fleshed out and believable as they all are – stand-ins for Baldwin’s musings on love, race, sexuality, class and identity. He sugarcoats everything and absolutely nothing, masking the ugliness of the world with languid prose that borders on poetry as he dissects humanity & society with a quiet anger.
Sounds like a lot though, right?
That’s because it is. I have a pretty high penchant for depressing books, film etc. Even I must admit the heaviness is draining, despite how thoroughly I enjoyed my time with Baldwin’s masterpiece. Every so often I felt the need to come up for air as I read.
It’s not necessarily a sad novel. Very dark, sad things happen but to describe “Another Country” as sad feels… disingenuous? This is certainly a classic ‘everyone here is objectively awful’ book, but I never fully turned against any of the main characters.
Even as they commit horrible acts against themselves or each other, I never hated anyone because everyone in the core ensemble feels like a real person, with motivations & insecurities more honest than the vast majority of novelists are bold enough to give their main characters. There are no heroes to cheer for, but there aren’t any villains either. These are just people.
To discuss “Another Country” is to discuss Rufus Scott.
As the book begins, Rufus Scott has wandered the streets of New York City as a penniless vagrant for weeks. He comes to a club he once played drums in, the club where he had his last gig, and begins to reminisce about the last time he was on the bandstand.
The constantly deviating, non-linear narrative first rears its head, and it’s done to great effect. We go from the sniveling, suffering present day Rufus to a version of Rufus months ago that thought he had the world eating out of his hand. Over the course of the extended first chapter we’re told the tale of Rufus’ descent into violent, toxic manic depression as he begins a relationship with a white woman named Leona. His love for her brings out his own self-hatred, his hatred of his oppressors, his hatred of the world and everything it’s done to him, which he unfortunately unleashes on Leona.
This is the first of a handful of interpersonal dynamics that form the foundation of “Another Country”. The rest are mutually parasitic while this is the most one-sided version of the unhealthy relationships we follow.
Rufus’ abuse grows worse, as does his mental state as he begins hearing voices and experiencing psychotic episodes. Eventually his best friend, a white man named Vivaldo, steps in and removes Leona from the situation – she’s quite literally collected by her family and committed to a sanitorium.
The end of the relationship breaks what little was left of Rufus and clears his mind at the same time. These events are what have driven Rufus to wander New York City alone for weeks, sleeping rough and getting food by offering up his body to closeted men late at night.
He seems to hit rock bottom looking into the club, and eventually seeks out his friend Vivaldo, who is happy just to see his friend is alive – no one has heard from Rufus in weeks.
Rufus literally weeps in Vivaldo’s arms for a moment, the first of many moments in this book where male to male vulnerability is highlighted and celebrated. The pair join their friends Cass & Richard – a married white couple – at a bar. Rufus is almost catatonic, only speaking when directly addressed and when Vivaldo is briefly distracted, Rufus sneaks away from his best friend. He seems to know where he’s going, but the reader only knows he’s taking the long way.
Eventually Rufus reaches his destination, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
This is only the 1st chapter, but also the longest, coming in at 93 pages with Rufus quite definitively set up as the main character. We get his most intimate thoughts, only briefly leaving his side to follow Vivaldo for maybe two or three pages. Rufus is charming yet cruel, indefensible yet nearly sympathetic. We’re shown the worst of him, him at his lowest.
Despite the fact that he’s only in the first 90 pages, and the rest of the plot has very little to do with him directly, the specter of Rufus feels omnipresent. The tone of “Another Country” is the tone of Rufus’ mind in his final days. Everything feels weighty, every action is morally grey at best, very little will be pleasant.
The rest of “Another Country” follows those who were closest to him – Vivaldo, Cass, Rufus’ sister Ida, and a man Rufus once loved named Eric – a group of liberal artists who debate his integrity & character just as often as they do the integrity of everyone else in the world.
A web of sex, lies, self-discovery & self-loathing proceeds over the next 300 pages. By the end of the story all suppressed emotions have been acted on and all dirty secrets have been made known to everyone involved. The way “Another Country” is paced and the way Baldwin writes, it’s far from a surprise that there’s no single final climatic event to bring everything to a close.
Rather than a true climax, there are confessions. The principal characters each take turns soliloquizing, having revelations about themselves and their lovers, agonizing over pain, all finding some kind of relief in having tortured themselves and each other.
I cannot stress enough that everyone in this book needs to practice self-care more.
“Another Country” was published in 1962, and (for better or worse, probably the second one) none of it’s themes & discussions have fallen to irrelevance. James Baldwin was so far ahead of his time.
There is no core message or tenant that Baldwin is peddling, and I love that he doesn’t attempt to synthesize so much complexity into some kind of mission statement. He presents the readers with questions.
Can you reconcile hating & loving the people that engineer your oppression?
Is the act of loving someone selfish at its core?
Can you ever truly know yourself or anyone around you?
Rather than pretending to have the answers no one has, Baldwin instead explores why there is no universal truth behind the complications society puts in the way of intimacy. His characters reflect the world’s inadequacies & cruelty while simultaneously clawing to overcome those things, in the way real people struggle with themselves and the world.
I finished “Another Country” a week ago. I’ve spent time thinking about it & re-reading passages every day since. There’s so much to consider, re-consider and re-evaluate that I honestly don’t feel like I’ve fully wrapped my head around it yet.
Still, despite how confronting it can be, it’s clear to me “Another Country” is one of the best books I’ve ever read.