Life and Work
Albert French was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1943. At age nineteen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. During his six-year career in the military, he served in the Vietnam War, where he suffered a life-threatening injury in 1965. French also had to cope with the loss of several friends who died in the war. He would eventually struggle to deal with these traumatic events in his writing.
When he came back to the United States, French encountered segregation in Pittsburgh. “I go to Vietnam, do all that little ole American stuff—bang, bang, bang, get a Purple Heart,” he says in an interview, then, “I get back to Pittsburgh and am told: ‘You can’t come in here boy’” (“Interview: US Novelist” 22). At first, he attended college for one semester. After working in the Pittsburgh steel industry for a few years, French got a job as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he worked from 1971 to 1983. In 1980, he started his own magazine, the Pittsburgh Preview Magazine, which was in production for eight years.
In order to deal with the collapse of the magazine, the death of his father, his memories from the Vietnam War, and his experiences with racism, French turned to writing. About this choice, he explains, “There wasn’t a time where I sat down and decided I was going to write a book and get it published. I was under no illusions. I simply wanted something to do with my life” (“Interview: US Novelist” 22). His cousin John Edgar Wideman, also a published writer, was impressed by the resulting manuscript. Wideman supported his cousin’s decision to write and sent the manuscript to his agent.
Currently, French resides in Pittsburgh, where he continues to write. Several of his novels have been adapted into plays and films. Despite his success, French still feels anxiety about his writing career: “Three of my books are optioned to the movies, two are in translation in France, Germany and somewhere else, but I’m still frightened … once I write a book, I don’t want to hear any more about it. And I never know if I can do it again” (Streitfeld D01).
Of his writing style, French comments, “I’m not a real writer by academic standards. I just write” (“Interview: US Novelist” 22). For French, the writing process is less about revising his work and more about getting words on the page: “I have a typewriter sitting here, and I reach under the desk, pull up a page, type ‘Page 1,’ and fill up the empty space. I can concentrate on that because I understand that. When the page is full, I reach underneath for another sheet, and do it again” (Streitfeld D01).
Throughout his career, French has published three novels and one memoir. His first book, Billy, takes place in the American South in the 1940s. A young Black boy, Billy Lee Turner, stabs a white girl after she and a friend assault him for trespassing. The girl dies, and a judge gives Billy the death sentence. French’s second novel,Holly, shares the1940s South as its setting. A young white woman, Holly Hill, turns to a Black World War II veteran, Elias Owens, after her fiancé is killed and her brother is injured in the war. Their relationship ends when Holly gets pregnant and is attacked by her father. Holly survives, but Elias is arrested and dies in prison. French’s memoir, Patches of Fire, is the product of his decision to write as a means of coping with difficulties in his life.
In I Can’t Wait on God, French’s most recent work, long, flowing sentences, repetition, and the use of the vernacular give the narrative voice a rhythmic, musical quality. The novel is set in Homewood, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where French grew up. The story switches back and forth between several characters who live in the neighborhood. It begins at Gus Goins’s house, where the locals gather at night to play cards, eat chicken, drink, and dance to the music of his jukebox. Mack Jack, a saxophone player who hasn’t performed since another musician stole his music, struggles to get back to playing his sax, while Bill Lovit drinks and sings hymns as he deals with the loss of his family in a house fire. Mister Allen sits on his porch and tries to find peace amid shouting children and barking dogs while he worries about the news of war in Korea on the radio. Daily routines are interrupted when Willet Mercer and Jeremiah Henderson murder
Tommy Moses, a local pimp, and steal his car and money to escape to New York.
One of French’s themes in I Can’t Wait on God is racism. Pittsburgh in the 1950s is a segregated city, where Blacks live separate from whites, where they can buy ice cream but can’t eat it in the store, where Jeremiah faces a bartender who “seems to let his eyes look at things twice he already seen once” when he enters a bar in the white part of town (19). As Jeremiah and Willet travel south to see her abandoned son Mason, they stop at a gas station where they aren’t allowed to use the bathroom and are stared at because they are Black and driving a nice car. Racism’s effects on both whites and Blacks can be seen in a white gas attendant’s awareness of “that space between him and that nigger’s woman that he can’t reach through, can’t even think through” (71).
In addition to racism, the novel also explores the different ways people cope with crises in their lives. For some of the characters, the answer is escapism. Homewood locals go to Gus Goins’s house to party and forget their everyday struggles. Bill Lovit relies on alcohol, and Mack Jack’s musician friends turn to drugs. For Willet, escape from troubles means literally running away. Her sister Lulu describes Willet’s need to escape: “Seems like she gots at do that runnin” (230). Other characters in the novel turn to religion, including Willet’s mother, who believes “there ain’t nothin God can’t take care of” (243). She tries to convince Willet to rely on God for help, but Willet responds, “I can’t wait on God, Mama. I got to go” (243).
The conclusion of I Can’t Wait on God is ambiguous. Willet and Jeremiah are still on the run, but a sheriff may be following close behind. The reader doesn’t know how their story will end. Still, the novel closes with hope of redemption. Willet finally meets with her son, and her decision to return Mason to her mother instead of bringing him along protects him from getting involved in her troubles. At the end, Mack Jack finally picks up his saxophone and plays, and the music brings Mack Jack and his Homewood neighbors “up out of the dark” (246).
Publications and Awards
By the Author
- Billy. New York: Viking, 1993. Thorndike, ME: G.K. Hall, 1994. Hampton, NH: Curley Large Print, 1994. London: Minerva, 1994. New York: Penguin, 1995.
- Holly. New York: Viking, 1995. London: Minerva, 1995. New York: Penguin, 1996. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P, 2003.
- I Can’t Wait on God. New York: Anchor, 1998. London: Secker & Warburg, 1998. New York, Anchor, 1999. London: Vintage, 2000. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P, 2003.
- Patches of Fire: A Story of War and Redemption. New York: Anchor, 1997; London: Secker & Warburg, 1997; New York: Anchor, 1998; London: Vintage, 1998.
- New York Times Book Review Notable Book for Billy, 1994
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- “African Americans Select their Favorite Books of the Twentieth Century.” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 26 (Winter 1999-2000): 122-23.
- Berben-Masi, Jacqueline. “From Billy to I Can’t Wait on God: Building the Case for Victimization vs. Self-Affirmation.” Cycnos 19.2 (2002): 241-51.
- Boyd, Blanche McCrary. “Dangerous Liason.” Rev. of Holly. New York Times Book Review 4 June 1995: 712.
- Coleman, Michael. Rev. of Patches of Fire: A Story of War and Redemption. Library Journal 122.1 (Jan. 1997): 108-09.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography. 2003. Gale Literary Databases. 3 Sept. 2004 <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>.
- Dorris, Michael. “No Place for a Black Boy to Swim.” Rev. of Billy. New York Times Book Review 19 Dec. 1993: 77.
- Giddins, Gary. “Escape to New York.” Rev. of I Can’t Wait on God. New York Times Book Review 20 Sept. 1998: 22.
- Gussow, Mel. “For an Unlikely Author, Life is War and Redemption.” Rev. of Patches of Fire: A Story of War and Redemption. New York Times 4 June 1997: C13.
- Koenig, Rhoda. Rev. of Billy. New York Times Book Review 13 Dec. 1993: 90.
- Loeb, Jeffrey T. “Albert French.” Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. 164-67.
- —. Rev. of Patches of Fire: A Story of War and Redemption. African American Review 33.2 (Summer 1999): 372-74.
- Seaman, Donna. Rev. of Billy. Booklist 1 Oct. 1993: 254.
- Streitfeld, David. “A Tale of Two Cousins: John Wideman and Albert French have Covered a Lot of Literary Territory–Sometimes in the Same Back Yard.”Washington Post 23 Nov. 1998: D01.
- Stuttaford, Genevieve. Rev. of Patches of Fire: A Story of War and Redemption. Publishers Weekly 243.48 (Nov. 25, 1996): 64.
- “Hard Black Books: As the Hype about Albert French’s New Book Begins to Snowball, the Author Talks to Tony Snow about his Bitterness towards the Pigeonholing of his Work in the United States.” The Voice 28 Sept. 1998: 20.
- “Interview with Albert French.” Boldtype. Sept. 1998. Random House. 3 Sept. 2004 <http://www.boldtype.com/0898/french/index.html>.
- “Interview: US Novelist Albert French; The French Connection.” The Voice 12 May 1997: 22.