Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, 1957
The magic trick:
Getting to the essence of Sonny’s character
So many stories – even the good ones – describe characters in only adjectives or maybe the author lets the characters show themselves through actions. And that’s OK, but Baldwin is on a whole other level here in the way he portrays Sonny. The narrator spends the entire story trying to get to fully understand his younger brother, so it allows the reader to take the same journey. And Baldwin delivers a complete picture.
The narrator blends a combination of analysis, family memories, and accounts of interactions with Sonny, to give the reader a multi-faceted vision of his brother. The most effective is the analysis, in which Baldwin – through his narrator – shows uncommon insight into the human condition. My favorite instance of this is the narrator’s description of both his father and brother as having “that same privacy.” It’s a subtle human characteristic – detachment without malice – that often escapes notice in art and even in real life. Baldwin catches it and highlights it beautifully in this story.
“Sonny’s Blues” is about many specifics: 1950s urban America, the pre-Civil Rights Era African-American experience, jazz, poverty, and drug addiction, to name a few. But the way in which Baldwin is able to cut to the core of his characters, especially Sonny, gives the story a timeless quality that transcends race, genre, and era. And that’s quite a trick on Baldwin’s part.
They began, in a way, to be afflicted by this presence that was living in their home. It was as though Sonny were some sort of god, or monster. He moved in an atmosphere which wasn’t like theirs at all. They fed him and he ate, he washed himself, he walked in and out of their door; he certainly wasn’t nasty or unpleasant or rude, Sonny isn’t any of those things; but it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to reach him.