As a former English major and avid reader of many authors of her period, I am shocked I never heard the name Ann Petry before I read The Narrows. What a gifted writer. Before I go further, I want to mention the forward, intended to introduce Petry to readers like me and comment on this novel. IT HAS SPOILERS. I became attached to all the characters as I read the novel and became immersed in the setting and so I was annoyed the whole time that the forward gave things away. I actually put the book down for periods of time out of frustration. Don’t do that forward writers. Let us discover a good novel without telling us what’s coming. So, to all of you who have not yet read the book, SKIP THE FORWARD.
The Narrows is a book about so many things. Written in 1953, seventy years ago, it is contemporary in its take on race and how, in a typical small city, not far from New York, Rich white people and working/middle class/poor Black people stereotype one another. Lincoln (Link) Williams is the adopted son of Abbie Crunch, a widow who lives on the first floor of her boarding house and lets the second floor out. It is about The Narrows, the Black neighborhood in a very white fictional Connecticut city called Monmouth. It’s not far from New York City. Abbie’s house is on Dumble Street, widely viewed as the most high crime low living street in The Narrows. She is a church lady with strong ideas of what is proper and a deep dislike of Bill Hod, owner of The Last Chance Bar right across the street. Naturally, when Link and Abbie have a falling out at a time when she is grieving her husband’s death, he turns to Bill and his chef, Weak Knees. You, like me, will want very much to eat at the Last Chance as Weak Knees’ talent comes up over and over. Other characters include a photographer, Jubine, whose work is so exceptional he sells to national magazines and newspapers. He captures the essence of a moment and the character of his subjects, sometimes to their detriment, often in a beautiful, deep, inexplicable manner. Then, there’s Cat Jimmie, a terrifying guy at least in concept, who has had both legs amputated. He rolls on a cart, chasing women in hopes of taking a glimpse up their dresses. There’s Cesar, the Writing Man, who draws intricate verse on sidewalks of The Narrows, beautiful, but sometimes frightening in what the words foretell. Finally, there’s Abbie’s best friend and fellow church lady, the neighborhood undertaker, Frances Jackson.
Arriving into this scent is a new family to the neighborhood, who have rented Abbie’s second floor on Dumble Street. Mr. Powther is the butler for the Treadways, a hugely wealthy white family across town. The Treadways made their fortune manufacturing munitions and the plant is located in Monmouth. Powther is married to the sensual Mamie. Mamie has an amazing singing voice, is kind to Powther as she cheats on him regularly, and has given birth to a bunch of boys, the youngest still in diapers. They are loosely raising themselves, though Mamie does laundry and Powther tells them strange and wonderful bedtime stories. One of my favorite characters is J.C., Mamie and Powther’s youngest boy, very smart though that’s not obvious at first, often unkempt, who worms his way into the very disapproving Abbie’s heart. Another interesting and important character, eventually as a kind of narrator/Greek chorus is the white editor of the newspaper Peter Bullock who knows the right thing to do, but can vary in his resolve.
Camilo Treadway, the gorgeous daughter of the Treadways spends her time in both New York City and Monmouth these days. Link, now a handsome man, college graduate, working at the Last Chance, meets Camilo and they become close friends. Their connection becomes the story. Despite 1950s Northeastern United States views of race, the palpable suspicion from everyone in The Narrows where they sometimes hang out and all the complexities you can imagine arising from such a friendship, they carelessly ignore reality and fly toward the flame.
The story itself is fairly common. It is the characters, the settings and Petry’s observations about them through a variety of lenses that makes this novel unforgettable. It is, as noted, remarkably observant about attitudes that are still prevalent in the United States. It was hard sometimes to read The Narrows, because if you are a decent person, racism is unbearable to read about. Still, the book it is richly written, engrossing all the time and I highly, highly recommend it.