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By John Edgar Wideman
Henry Holt
199 pages, $18.95

IT'S HARD to imagine a more compelling subject than the role of racism in America's continuing urban disintegration, and harder yet to find a major voice on the contemporary literary scene willing to explore the complexity of this theme with genuine sensitivity and insight. In his 1989 collection of short stories titled "Fever," John Edgar Wideman suggested conflagration as a metaphor for contemporary urban experience -- a vision which, in his most recent novel, "Philadelphia Fire," he attempts to kindle into tragic art.

Best-known, perhaps, for his 1984 memoir "Brothers and Keepers," Wideman is himself a kind of star-crossed emblem of the American Dream. As a young man, he escaped from the streets of Philadelphia to become a Phi Beta Kappa student and All-Ivy League basketball player at the University of Pennsylvania, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and in his eventual career as a writer, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner and National Book Critics Circle Award nominee.

What he could not change was the lives of those he left behind -- his brother Robert, whose troubled life and ultimate murder conviction form the backdrop for the soul-searching of "Brothers and Keepers," and, more recently, his son Jacob's plea of guilty to the charge of murdering a camping companion during a trip to Maine in 1986.

This latter tragedy figures prominently in the narrative underpinnings of "Philadelphia Fire," although it is introduced into the text as a non sequitur that obliges the reader to place it in context.

Although Wideman is not generally considered an experimental writer, one would be hard-pressed to name a recent American novel that takes more liberties with narrative form.

Among these liberties is the shifting of both the identity of the principal characters and the narrative point of view as the novel explores the events surrounding the police-directed firebombing of the West Philadelphia headquarters of MOVE, a radical Afrocentric, back-to-the-earth cult, on May 13, 1985. In the ensuing inferno, which spread to encompass and incinerate an entire 1 1/2 -block neighborhood, 11 MOVE members perished.

Five thousand miles away on the Greek island of Mykonos,Wideman's sometime protagonist and alter ego, Cudjoe, drifts through the life of an African-American writer in self-imposed exile from the detritus of a failed marriage and the fallout from the black consciousness movement of the 1960s and '70s. Several months after the MOVE incident, Cudjoe reads an account of the bombing of his old neighborhood in a Greek newspaper, and is haunted by the image of a missing child -- a boy named Simba Muntu -- who was seen fleeing from the inferno and disappearing into the fiery night.

Shocked out of his ennui and ambivalence, Cudjoe returns to his native West Philadelphia neighborhood as a would-be journalist attempting to reconstruct the many personal stories -- especially Simba's -- that were consumed by flames. Those he interviews are not particularly forthcoming: a MOVE sympathizer named Margaret Jones gives him the cold shoulder, while a college classmate nicknamed Timbo -- a personal aide to Philadelphia's first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode -- sees the MOVE episode as more of a public relations problem for his administration than a publicly funded mass cremation.

In the second part of Wideman's three-part narrative, we suddenly find the author addressing us directly in the first person.

Wideman explores the link between his fixation on the image of the boy fleeing MOVE headquarters -- reportedly trailing an aureole of flame behind him -- and the voice of his own "lost son," an 18-year-old "inhabited by more than one self" who rots inside a maximum-security prison repeating a tragic story that has "become (his) substitute for an integrated sense of self, of oneness, the personality he can never achieve." The psychic bond between father and son becomes even more problematic in light of the author's invocation of a broad repertoire of his own narrative "personalities" in what follows.

These voices range from a refigured Caliban (derived from an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Tempest" that Cudjoe/Wideman once attempted to stage in an inner-city public school); to J.B. (sometimes referred to facetiously as "James Brown"), an angry urban rapper whose dazzling wordplay combines Elizabethan English with contemporary street rhythms and whose mantra, MPT (Money Power Things), strikes a chord with his graffiti-spraying audience, the KKK (also known as Kaliban's Kids Krusade); and finally, back to Cudjoe/Wideman plaintively counseling his son to live his life "strongly, fully, moment by moment. . . . We do have a chance to unfold our days one by one and piece together the story that shapes us. Hold on."

In the novel's chaotic final passage, Cudjoe attends a public memorial service for the dead of Osage Avenue, only to find Philadelphia's Independence Square suddenly populated by the ghosts of black victims of an earlier Philadelphia massacre -- this one an unprovoked attack on former slaves who had joined in an Independence Day rally on July 4, 1805. Caught up in a regression of hallucinatory images that culminated in a reprise of the helicopter bombing of MOVE headquarters (which corresponds, ironically, with the countdown to a balloon launch in the real-time memorial service), Cudjoe resists the temptation to turn away from his vision of an unfolding urban holocaust with the survivor's vow, "Never again, never again," on his lips.

"Philadelphia Fire" is neither a seamless nor a particularly elegant novel. Its abrupt shifts of narrative voice and thematic development exact a far greater quality of readerly attention and interpretation than is fashionable in most contemporary fiction. In the end, one gets the sense that Wideman has risked about as much as an author can in one book, and revealed much of his own vulnerability in the bargain.

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