"We take our shape," James Baldwin once wrote, "within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth."
Such a tidy credo, one can overlook it took Baldwin years to learn it.
When the great novelist arrived in Paris in 1948 carrying a partly finished novel with a little over $40 in his pocket, he believed all the things plaguing him — his confusion over sexuality and his blackness, his uneasiness about where he was from and the shame which attended — would fall away.
He quickly discovered the cage had come with him, its bars just slightly rearranged.
It took Baldwin a few books to turn his feelings about who he was into art. Being away from home was not the solution, it just gave him the space to see things more clearly.
The essayist and novelist Darryl Pinckney probably knows Baldwin's life and work better than any living American, and in his long-awaited second novel, "Black Deutschland," he pays Baldwin the highest tribute: telling a story in which a man much like Baldwin — a gay, black, alcoholic ex-pat — learns that who he is, who he loves, where he's from can't be disentangled.
It is the 1980s. Jed, our narrator, is fresh out of rehab and second chances in Chicago. The AIDS epidemic has also begun its burying work. Jed flees to his beloved Berlin, following the siren call of Christopher Isherwood's fiction: "Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany's crimes by loving a black boy like me."
Jed isn't able to perform this kind of flip inversion of racial politics for long. His striving, exceptional cousin Cello takes him in and becomes a constant reminder of his former life. Jed gets a curfew and a window out of which to smoke. He knows that if he backslides he risks becoming his hard-working parents' clichéd nightmare: a black drug addict.
Working for a shadowy architect, Jed fantasizes about Berlin's Weimar past, its communalism. As he reacquaints himself with Berlin from past sojourns, he recalls not just old friends and drinking haunts, but the specter of the family he has guiltily turned his back on — his father tending to a failing black newspaper, his mother to battered black bodies at a kind of shelter.
In his 1992 debut novel, "High Cotton," Pinckney captured the contradictions and tensions of what W.E.B. Dubois called "the talented tenth." That novel's unnamed black narrator is both lifted up and hollowed out by its legacy. Given all the privileges and entitlements of exceptionalism, he somehow feels a fraud, unworthy, as if playing a role.
"Black Deutschland" continues that story in a way. It depicts a man so chased by shame that he needs to broaden his circle of influence. To escape Cello's watchful gaze, Jed walks the city, and some of this book's most beautiful passages describe him floating from one zone to the next, allowing its strangeness and difference to change the question of his being from "will I fail'' to "will I find love.''
This is a dangerous quest for an addict. Pinckney writes with profound understanding of the ways in which this affliction makes love so complicated. How much Jed wants to be liked but how watchful he must be of that urge. How the places he looks, foolishly, for love are so often the places he used to go to score or to drink.
Much of the novel takes place at an ex-pat bar called ChiChi where black session musicians, ex-pats, and all comers cross paths in the bleary hours. Diving back and forth, from the present to the past, "Black Deutschland" most often surfaces here, among the binge drinkers and lost souls. The bar feels like a clock, counting out tidal movements that work powerfully on Jed. Mostly, he resists.
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. As Jed's time passes and his work for the megalomaniac architect winds down, he retreats ever more into private spheres: friend's apartments, a commune, and eventually, a lover's bed.
In recent years, Baldwin has come zooming back into American life because we all wish he were here to dress down the racism so rampant in this country. But there's more to him than being a quotable stick to swing at police videos. In this gorgeous novel, Pinckney demonstrates what that is by carrying the great writer's project forward. Here is love and fire, working in tandem, not against one another, as Baldwin hoped — as he saw was our way out.
By Darryl Pinckney
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman's, a biannual literary journal, and author of "How to Read a Novelist.''