Without a hint of sloganeering, Pinckney evokes in these scenes a melancholia that transcends his narrator, achieving something rare in fiction — an honestly-come-by sense of cultural and political sadness.
It’s hard to think of a recent novel that so vividly and sensually brings to life a time and place. Black Deutschland sees Berlin like a flaneur and a guide, chattily leading us deeper and deeper into its interior spaces.
This is the sort of novel you find yourself reading aloud to those within earshot, because you can’t quite believe how often the autumnal-intellectual tone Mr. Pinckney searches for veers instead toward ripe nonsense ... Black Deutschland works best, and loses its hydroponic quality, when it is grounded in the soil of close observation. Mr. Pinckney is very good, for example, on the intricacies of race and class.
The Berlin part of Jed’s story can seem shapeless, even incoherent in places, though it is never without charm. Sometimes one has the sense of a stream of consciousness without a stream ... Despite the gravity of Jed’s burdens and dilemmas (race, success, sanity, America, Germany), the book’s tone is comic, pleasingly spry, and the prose breaks naturally into witty one-liners.
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 ... Pinckney’s diction can occasionally be clunky. But in other sections his writing is acutely sharp and smart.
As a protagonist, Jed is curiously frustrating. Pinckney endows him with a voice that’s knowing, wryly romantic, fresh with insights and bitingly funny. Yet he continually disempowers him and takes him through one debasement after another ... Pinckney is better than this, and his book is bafflingly jumbled. And yet, in the final chapter, with its quietly elegiac tone, Pinckney miraculously pulls Jed’s life into a kind of anamorphic perspective — and damn near redeems the whole thing. Black Deutschland is a mess. But it’s a fascinating mess, written by a crucial, one-of-a-kind writer.
“Black Deutschland travels back and forth in time and place, covering Jed’s childhood and adolescence, his adventures in Berlin, and intermittent trips back home to Chicago. Sometimes these shifts, mirroring Jed’s thoughts, happen in the same paragraph. The result is a rare intimacy with the main character that, surprisingly, does not exhaust the reader.
Timeline and setting can be elusive from paragraph to paragraph, and some of Pinckney’s sentences, functioning a bit like abstract drips on an already-eccentric figurative canvas, seem to come out of nowhere ... What’s never in doubt is how deeply you’re immersed in Jed’s impulsive, insightful, if occasionally deluded mind.
The narrative shifts freely, unpredictably, but with a cerebral coolness, from subject to subject, Europe to America, present to past, from personal drama to reflections on black history or the mission to reconstruct Berlin. The storytelling is fractured. The plot is made of scenes intercutting other scenes, of delayed resolutions. It’s not always easy to follow what’s going on, but re-reading is a rich experience, as pieces come together to illuminate each other.
...the substance of the novel remains profoundly puzzling to me. I can't decide whether Darryl Pinckney is deliberately writing an experimental book, with little to no plot, or whether he simply can't figure out where he's going ... Sentence by sentence, there are elegant, even gorgeous observations, but as to the whole, I'm baffled.
“Black Deutschland succeeds as a work of historical fiction, a rich rendering of a complex city and a complex individual. The lack of a straightforward narrative may be off-putting to readers looking for a nicely organized, resolved story, but as an exploration of the intersections of race, politics and sexuality during an important moment in history, it is an absorbing, terrifically constructed book.