As a writer, one of Pinckney’s illuminating qualities has been the probing respect and curiosity with which he engages his elders and tradition ... Pinckney is a companionable guide to this difficult era — like Baldwin, a fabulously erudite insider’s outsider: black and queer and thus always on guard for the way a situation will turn, surely his safety has depended on the maintenance of such sense ... As a reporter, on the ground, he is brisk, and leads with his hometown wits ... There wasn’t a critic in America who could speak with equal measures of warmth and intelligence like Baldwin until Pinckney emerged in his full power in the 1990s...Yet Pinckney's critical acuity never wavers before the pulse of biography ... Maintaining this level is one of Pinckney's other great skills. It’s not that he will not be rifled, or that he has a critic’s cold powers of isolation; rather, he remains committed to what Baldwin found in his life and work, a path between the poles of Washington and Du Bois, or Dr. King and Malcolm X, one of clear-eyed yet hopeful struggle and self-determination ... Looping from past to present, the sine-curve of Busted in New York is still heartbreaking. From Pinckney’s petty arrest in the East Village for marijuana possession to Freddie Gray — killed in a rough ride to a Baltimore jail, the kind that merely banged up Pinckney — there is a direct line. Yet if you refuse to see the struggle as linear, Pinckney’s essays argue, if you work backward to see ahead, that line is — if not broken — certainly not inevitable. Along the way, you might just meet the man you’ve been prevented from meeting for four hundred years.
Here, [Pinckney] reveals himself to be a skillful chronicler of black experience in literary criticism, reportage and biography ... what stands out in this collection are the moments when Pinckney turns his eye toward the contradictions of the black bourgeoisie, of which he is a longtime member ... A hazard of growing up black and middle class is the misguided belief that money and education will provide refuge from discrimination. Pinckney shows how those presumptions are often manifestations of internalized racism, and that even he is not immune to them ... Not all of the essays have aged well ... [Pinckney's] prose can also seem belabored and overwrought ... The crown jewel of this book is 'Banjo'...In it, Pinckney pinpoints a devastating irony of growing up in a privileged, intellectual milieu like his: Frequent conversations with his parents about race became a way for the family to deflect real intimacy. The pressure to live up to his parents’ expectations led to its own kind of oppression, one he sought to escape by traveling to Europe but addresses head on in this essay, which captures his journey toward self-discovery. Through race, Pinckney implies, we hide from each other and ourselves.
Pinckney is nuanced, historically minded and subtle – qualities that have allowed him to skirt the trapdoors of neoconservatism on the right and Marxism and black nationalism on the left. His work is imbued with an appealing, unadvertised bookishness, the result of wide and greedy reading. By and large, his sentences are smooth and readable, but sometimes they can be opaque and leaden ... Busted in New York shows him to be not only a formidable essayist, but a deft reporter as well. The reportage is edgy and idiosyncratic; it gazes outward but looks inward; it is heavily autobiographical; now and then, its time sequences unfold in jarring and surprising ways. The most impressive examples of the formula are a trio of reports from New Orleans, New York and Ferguson, Missouri ... Busted in New York ends with a celebratory essay on Aretha Franklin, but it can’t disguise the melancholy within these pages. Unresolved skirmishes with deceased parents permeate the text, and darken it: the existential ambiguities of the expatriate life (the author has lived in Berlin and Oxfordshire), and the hazards of the artistic vocation.