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.