Ann Petry (real name Ann Lane) wasn’t an author I’d ever heard of until I read Tayari Jones’ reflections on her and her most successful novel, The Street, in the December 2019 article for The Guardian entitled ‘The Street: the 1940s African American thriller that became a huge bestseller’. Jones’ observations on the book were ones almost designed to pique my interest and set me off in search of a copy:
“This is a story that is dark, but not depressing; disturbing, yet intriguing. How can a novel’s social criticism be so unflinching and clear, yet its plot moves like a house on fire? How can characters flirt with type, while remaining singular and unforgettable?”
I did in fact very luckily drop on an affordable UK first edition with decorated boards but without a dust jacket. I was, however, very tempted by a whole range of paperbacks with more or less lurid and titillating covers of the kind associated with the corner drugstore in most American towns of the 40s and 50s. These jackets do give you a pretty good indication of how the book was actually marketed – as a sensational pulp thriller rather than as a ‘serious’ piece of literature. And I guess you might argue that this marketing ploy worked to perfection because following its publication in 1946 it was the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies.
Any summary of the novel’s plot would immediately highlight the pulp potential of the story – a beautiful, young black single mother, Lutie Johnson, leaves her husband and takes her 8 year old son to live in an apartment in Harlem. The rooms are terrible and Lutie is desperate for her and her son to escape but life for poor black people isn’t a mobile one. There’s a spooky, obsessive building caretaker, a brothel madam and her girls and constant money worries to contend with. Lutie’s dreams of escape centre around the chance of a singing career but it seems that this too is a route full of compromises and threats to both her moral and physical well-being as powerful men wrangle over who is going to own her. Ultimately it is the actions of the rejected caretaker that triggers the sensational denouement – but I’m not revealing any of that, needless to say.
I like Tayari Jones’ astute summation:
“The Street embodies many of the conventions of crime fiction, and the novel is populated by a host of seedy characters. Boots Smith, the slimy bandleader; Junto, the nightclub owner, so dastardly that he makes Boots seem like a gentleman; Jones, the building superintendent, who sneaks into Lutie’s apartment and fondles her underwear. There is no comfort for Lutie in the friendship of women. The most generous person she meets is the madame downstairs, who offers her an opportunity to be decently compensated for demeaning sex work…However, The Street is so much more than a lurid tale, soaked in sex, violence and suspense. Petry laces through the story shrewd social commentary about the relentless nature of poverty and its effect on black women in particular. She addresses stereotypes one by one and crushes them underfoot.”
Reading the novel now for the first time, I found it was quite hard to read as a sensational pulp thriller because that is not what dominates the overall tone of the book. The issues of racism, social injustice, misogyny and exploitation just leap out of the page at you – Lutie’s fate is never in her own hands and the end involves such shocking compromises that it underscores the kind of social prison the street represents. The street itself is the problem – it’s a metaphor, a socially realistic truth and a state of mind all at the same time.
There’s no question that the book is a page-turner in that the pace of the narrative and the need to discover the outcome of the next disaster or betrayal drives you forward but don’t go to this novel expecting anything other than a book that reminds you that the social injustices of the 1940s are not that different to those of the 2020s.
(This review first appeared on The Letterpress Project website)