Sunday, March 9, 2003
Kansas City, Mo. For 40 years, a manuscript about growing up black and poor in Kansas City sat on a shelf in Bern, Switzerland, apparently just another failed effort by an unsuccessful writer.
The author, Vincent Carter, stopped writing when he couldn't get the book published. He died in 1983, unknown by the literary world.
That could soon change.
Through a series of events that might make their own good novel, Carter's story, "Such Sweet Thunder," will be published this April. The book is getting positive early reviews after a strong push from a small group of Carter's admirers.
Kirkus Review called it a "diamond in the rough" that "is still an extraordinarily honest and compassionate child's-eye view of a world too seldom seen in American fiction."
Carter was born in Kansas City in 1924, the only son of teen-age parents. He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1941, and was drafted into the Army. He never lived in Kansas City again, eventually settling in Bern, where he stayed until his death.
Although he changes names and places and uses a fictional child, Amerigo Jones, as the narrator, the book is Carter's story of coming of age through the Depression, racism and violence of the 1920s and '30s.
Still, "Such Sweet Thunder" is an often joyful and warm picture of how a youngster sees his loud, chaotic multiethnic world populated by his family, neighbors, teachers and friends. It is also a loving ode to his parents, who worked hard to provide for him and stayed in Kansas City until their deaths.
And that likely is the main reason why Carter couldn't get his book published in the 1960s, said Chip Fleischer, a publisher with Steerforth Press in South Royalton, Vt., who is mostly responsible for the book being published now. He said black writers in the 1960s were encouraged to write about black rage, civil rights and "the crap that black people had to put up with."
Carter wasn't interested in writing that kind of book, Fleischer said.
"Carter felt his strength was in portraying human beings in such a way that he could present black Americans and their experience in a new light," Fleischer said. "He wasn't political; he wasn't going to join a movement. ... Publishers at that time just weren't going for that."
Another problem was the book's length and its characters' use of a heavy dialect.
"The length of the book required the patience of an editor, and patient editors were then already a rapidly disappearing species," said Herbert Lottman, an international correspondent for Publishers Weekly in Paris.
Lottman met Carter in the 1970s, when he wrote a preface for the only book Carter had published in his lifetime -- "The Bern Book," about his first years in Bern. In that preface, Lottman also discussed Carter's unpublished work of fiction about Kansas City.
Carter trimmed the original manuscript and revised some of the dialect but still could not get his second book published.
And that would have been the end of the story, except for a serendipitous chain of events that began last summer.
A friend of Fleischer's found "The Bern Book" in a used bookstore and sent it to him, mostly because of Fleischer's Kansas City roots. Intrigued, Fleischer decided to find out if Carter or the manuscript mentioned in Lottman's preface still existed. He contacted Lottman, who told him Carter was long dead.
But Lottman contacted several others in Europe and the United States, which eventually led Fleischer to Liselotte Haas, who lived with Carter in Bern for 20 years.
"I was incredibly surprised; it was so out of the blue," Haas said in an interview from Bern. "I had not done anything (with the manuscript). It's like this fell from the sky. And it made me very, very happy."
The right time
Haas said that after he gave up trying to get the book published, Carter turned his attention to other means of creative expression, such as drawing and playing the flute. He also became interested in eastern religions and yoga.
"He decided that the most important thing was that he had written it. Naturally, he thought it was a pity that it wasn't published," Haas said. "But he wasn't bitter.
"I thought, 'Well, he's happy doing his painting and other things.' But somehow, deep, deep down, I thought perhaps someday it would happen. It seems the time is right now for him."
Four days after Haas was contacted, the 850-page manuscript arrived from Bern in Fleischer's office in Vermont.
Fleischer acknowledges that if Carter were alive, he would need to polish the book again, particularly the first 100 pages. But he said readers who get past the flaws will be entranced by Carter's world.
"This is a unique window into African-American culture and life between the world wars," Fleischer said. "In a way, it fills a hole on the shelf of 20th-century American literature. ... Carter succeeded in what he attempted to do, and as a work of literature, it's a really rare opportunity for readers."
Haas, who recently returned to Switzerland from a trip to the United States, said she hoped Americans would find the joy in the book.
"I found in this time in America, people are so insecure, so full of fears," she said. "I think a book that speaks so much about love and dignity under very difficult circumstances is needed now.
"I'm very happy for Vincent. That's what he wanted, to touch people's hearts with all this love."