With “O, Africa!,” Andrew Lewis Conn has given us a hilarious, surprising, touching novel set in the late Twenties, during the transition from silent films to talkies. The story follows a pair of film makers, twin brothers, Micah and Isidor (Izzy) Grand. Micah, the brash, bold, and risky one, is the director; Izzy, the cinematographer and editor, is more reserved and unassuming, preferring to see the world behind the lens and in the editing room. The novel opens with the duo finishing a film shoot in Coney Island, teaming up their star comedian, Henry Till, with the legendary, even in his time, Babe Ruth.
From there the curtains rise, revealing a cast of characters that will intrigue and delight you until the final page, including Arthur Marblestone, the founder and president of Imperial Pictures, thus employer of Micah and Izzy, who finds himself over his head in debt; Micah’s mistress, Rose, a light-skinned woman from Harlem, and her younger brother, Early; and a collection of unsavory criminal types with whom Micah’s gambling habit creates his own set of economic problems.
In due course, Marblestone devises a sure-fire scheme to end the financial woes of Imperial Pictures, and enlists the help of the Grand brothers. Micah, clever and resourceful as ever, warms to the idea as he sees the potential for improving his own situation. The company president sends the filmmakers, along with a tiny cast-and-crew combo, including Henry Till, to Africa, where they will film a new comedy and collect as much stock footage as possible, which Marblestone hopes to sell to other production outfits, putting Imperial Pictures back in the black. Through this unlikely journey, we are witness to several grand and glorious love stories: of two brothers for each other, for cinema as art and as work, for those closest to them, and those they meet along the way. All the while, they come to terms with the racial attitudes of their times, the changing and growing Hollywood industry, and their own strengths and weaknesses.
Mr. Conn has not simply delivered to us an engrossing narrative, but he’s done so with vibrant, pulsating, read-it-out-loud language. There is humor coursing through the pages; your laughter will be so audible the other passengers on the train will likely glance at you sideways with concern. There is also much tragedy, and your gasps will gain you the unsolicited offers of an inhaler from compassionate asthmatics.
One of Conn’s most effective tools for drawing us into his language is his manner of listing, giving a catalog of images or descriptions to fill the reader’s imagination with the world he’s created. Early in the novel, while trolling for a place to use the restroom,
Micah takes in the passing parade of women with parasols and men in derbies, brownies, and bowler hats; brilliantined barkers and sailors on shore leave; cigarette girls and cotton-candy kids; the entire ready-made collage of movement, light, and faces.
The list, short and sharp like a good bark, asks to be read aloud as the plosive bs and the hard k sounds pulse the reader along. Such techniques also serve Conn well as a source of humor, as when Sidney Bloat, an associate of Marblestone’s, explains the history of the red carpet.
“Well, you see, the red carpet was originally implemented as a weapon; rolling out the red carpet was a battle cry, the red-carpet treatment a signal for certain death from above…because bundled inside said carpet, trundled inside said tapestry, rolled inside said rug, was a coterie of mercenaries, marksmen, private armies, jubilant assassins, soldiers of fortune, anarchist bomb throwers, a band of evil angels, and a collection of the worst, most rotten scoundrels the eighteenth century had on offer. The carpet was bad, bad, bad. And it was red….Hence the sanguine coloration.”
The alliteration, the enthusiasm of the speaker, the culmination of the repetitions, all draw the reader to laughter as one envisions a wildly gesticulating salesman delivering his little history lesson in the middle of a theatre. And the diatribe only serves as an introduction to Bloat’s even more enthusiastic description of the red carpet on which he, Izzy and Marblestone are currently standing. Laughter comes loud and often through the descriptions of Henry Till’s action on camera, or the description of Micah’s first experience with a now-legal-in-some-states herbal cigarette.
Though thoroughly littered with humor, Mr. Conn has also infused his novel with heartbreak and longing, life and death. At the risk of saying too much, giving away even more of the story, or the risk of saying too little, overly relying on some meager quotes and my own enthusiasm’s ability to seep through cyberspace, get yourself a copy of “O, Africa!” It will speak to your inner movie buff, adventurer, voracious reader, or prose interpretation performer. Your shelf, and the investigating eyes of houseguests will be much pleased with this addition.
For more information or to find out more about the author, follow the links to Random House.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.