In 1977, when he was 24 years old, Darryl Pinckney published his first essay for The New York Review of Books. Reviewing a volume about the black bourgeoisie’s social practices, Pinckney initiated his life’s work: interrogating and illustrating the history of African American life, which he described as “complicated, fragmented, disturbing to contemplate.”

Pinckney’s countless superb critical essays since encompass the length and breadth of African American letters. He’s also added to that body of literary works with his own novels, High Cotton (1992) and his difficult, vibrant new book, Black Deutschland, both of which feature narrators striving for self-recognition. His fiction benefits from his literary historical knowledge: His protagonists come from Midwestern branches of the black bourgeoisie and they tell their stories in the first-person memorial mode that’s central to the African American literary tradition, from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to Margo Jefferson’s Negroland.

Jed Goodfinch, the narrator/protagonist of Black Deutschland, is a middle-class Chicagoan attempting an Isherwood-inspired life in West Berlin during the late 1980s. Like so many of his expatriate forebears, he’s intent on both self-discovery and escape. But Pinckney improvises and revises the form he’s adopted, avoiding the temptation to lead Jed to easy resolution. In a novel about escaping the confines of home, family, racial narratives, and self-loathing, he argues that accepting those constraints is vital for the narrative of the autobiographical self to emerge.

While Pinckney’s prose and formal approach in Black Deutschland point to literary ancestors like W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Christopher Isherwood, the avuncular influence of the Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay is perhaps most strongly felt. Jed, for example, is like a late 20th-century version of McKay’s character, Ray, the self-doubting, ambivalent artist-intellectual who shows up in Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929).

Like McKay’s Banjo, Black Deutschland is a novel without a plot. And like Ray, Jed is a directionless, restless protagonist: He’s a coke-snorting, weed-smoking, Alcoholics Anonymous devotee fresh out of rehab at the novel’s start; he’s an African American homosexual who toggles between gay and straight sexual liaisons, and black and white lovers; and he’s a storyteller whose sense of narrative time sometimes skitters away from his control, causing sequences in Chicago and Berlin to overlap without explicit transitions. At times, this tick makes it difficult to keep Jed’s story in historical order. In other instances, it allows the two cities to speak to each other, illuminating elements of Jed’s experience that even he can’t see.

Because Pinckney doesn’t construct any direct confrontations about history or blackness, or assert any strict definitions of gay life or African American identity, the novel doesn’t feel explicitly or especially political. Hence, Black Deutschland feels more like a melocomic novel of experience. At the beginning of the book, Jed is in his early 30s and has just arrived in West Berlin for the second time to live with his cousin, Cello, and her German family. (Having gone deep in his cups of white wine and lines of cocaine on his first go around, Jed was forced back to Chicago for sobering up and growing up.) His return comes with a post as a research and writing assistant for an architect, the extravagantly named N.I. Rosen-Montag. After hours, he haunts ChiChi, a bar populated by straight, black American veterans, where he buys rounds and reenters the camaraderie of a male cohort, and the black American life he can’t seem to make work back home.

Outside of ChiChi, Jed is wobbly, unsure. He fumbles his job and his loves away. He’s attracted to Manfred, a young, straight German architect, but his desire is unrequited. Later, in the midst of an affair with Duallo, a Franco-Cameroonian from Paris, Jed can’t tell if he’s “really in love” or if he’s just “relieved to have someone, to have joined the living.”

Pinckney uses references, quotations, flashbacks, and scenes from histories as buffers between Berlin and Chicago. He also uses them to open chapters or serve as interstitial points between sections. Sometimes this material feels disconnected from Jed’s story, but it helps to read these sequences as if they were unedited marginalia within a notebook draft of Jed’s memoirs. Pinckney also plays with time: While Jed recalls his late 1980s life from a future remove, his anecdotes and his working notes conjure, variously, Frederick Douglass and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, W.E.B. Du Bois as a 25-year-old doctoral student in 1890s Berlin, Rosa Luxemburg and the 1918 German Revolution, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, among other things. Linking these fragments is like following Jed’s mind as it wanders in search of the roots of his ambivalence and alienation.

While some asides loop back into play within a few pages, others don’t make sense until late in the work. The political upheaval of the late 1980s, for example, is largely marginalized in Jed’s narrative. Rather than allow Jed to really wrestle with the Reagan Years, the end of the Cold War, the rise of AIDS, or the specter of international terrorism, Pinckney broadcasts key political events on televisions that sit, float, and hang like stage backdrops for the scenes of Jed’s life: Pan Am Flight 103, Harold Washington’s funeral, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie, Huey Newton’s murder, Tiananmen Square, Rock Hudson’s ruined body. It’s only in the novel’s final chapter, when Jed finds himself among the revelers bringing down the Berlin Wall, that his story interlaces with the larger political moment.

Pinckney’s diction can occasionally be clunky. When Jed checks on Duallo during a party, the action is meant “to say to whomsoever to him cometh that the nectar in question was mine.” And sometimes his similes fall flat: A curved apartment building resembles “a diesel engine about to run him over.” But in other sections his writing is acutely sharp and smart. In the Chicago scenes, where Jed juxtaposes scenes from the civil-rights movement with scenes of his family mourning Mayor Harold Washington, Pinckney writes with great humor and tenderness. His writing limns a quality Jed’s uncle describes in one scene as “the negrificity of these proceedings.”

Through his remembrances, Jed recognizes a version of himself in Cello: They’re both striving, intelligent, prone to addiction ... and ultimately friendless and lonely. In fleeing the U. S., they both want to escape the psychological, emotional, and social traps they perceive in black American life, and they mirror for each other their failure to find the imagined, impossible Berlin that would liberate them from themselves.

But Jed’s notes and fragments, his memories of family life in Chicago, of the civil-rights movement, of the Sorrow Songs and “what Frederick Douglass knew of them,” and how they took Du Bois “home to Negro-hating America,” create a chain that awakens him to the reality of America’s racial matrix. Jed recognizes in the end that to disengage from that linkage is to sit in seclusion. “I am one of the black American leftovers who sit by themselves,” he thinks. “I just wanted to be left alone. I was. I have been, my slowed footsteps a perfunctory but familiar chorus.”  

Pinckney knows that the black autobiographical self begins as a reflection of home. Even though literature empowers writers to create intriguing, beautiful, and endless cities to inhabit, families show up in imagined worlds to point to the other realities they belong to. Jed’s narrative isn’t intended to symbolize the black American story, but his route to self-recognition necessarily engages both his family history and the broader African American experience. Relinquishing those domestic and ethnic bonds reduces them to dust, making Jed simply the lexicographer, as he puts it, of his own “desire and ruin.”