Walter Dean Myers is perhaps best known for his novels of gritty realism. Over the course of his career, he developed countless techniques to make his readers feel as though they were with his characters in the cramped apartments and on the vibrant but violent streets of Harlem and the surrounding neighborhoods of New York City. One of those techniques involved introducing, right in the middle of his stories, characters and incidents that seem to have nothing at all to do with anything. This week’s passage provides an example of this technique in action.
Jimmy, the protagonist of Myers’s Somewhere in the Darkness, is on a road trip with his father, a man who appeared at the door of his caretaker’s apartment after being in jail for nearly a decade and, Jimmy is painfully aware, never once wrote him. Jimmy’s father, called Crab, convinces the boy to come with him to Chicago, where he says he has a job waiting for him. Jimmy has reservations about leaving Mama Jean, who has become a mother to him, but also longs to get to know his father, and is assured by him over and over again that all will be fine once they make it to Chicago. Soon, perhaps, Crab will even be able to pay for Mama Jean to come join them.
At a pit stop in Cleveland, however, things begin to go south. Crab suggests that they stay there in Cleveland rather than continue on to Chicago, saying he’s got friends in the area. Jimmy is confused – what about the job in Chicago? – and after an evasive answer from Crab, begins to have doubts about this trip and, more generally, about his father. A beat later, a man enters the diner they’re eating in. He’s there to sell fish. Asked about the freshness of his wares, the man says, “They so fresh they think they out for a walk on the beach. I told them I’m taking them back to the water soon as I have my coffee!” One of the other diners comments, “If they believe that then they some stupid fish.”
If this brief, 167-word aside did nothing but add a touch of realism to this scene, then it would serve a purpose and deserve a place in Myers’s book. Myers, however, is better, and smarter, than that. The scene also serves as a sort of commentary on Jimmy’s situation. He is himself, figuratively speaking, a fish out of water, and as readers, we are here asked to consider whether he is in fact a stupid fish out of water, whether this drive with his father is “a walk on the beach” that will only end badly. As a sensitive boy, Jimmy’s feelings of empathy for the barrel of dead, “tricked” fish open him up to the possibility that he’s made a mistake, and help give shape to the doubts and concerns that have been hanging hazily in the back of his mind since he first set out with his father.
Myers, who could write like the most lyrical of poets when he chose to, often wrote in spare, unadorned prose. But he made his words work hard. And here we see how masterful he was at using those words to construct scenes, how a seemingly random and almost inane aside can not only add a dash of realism to a moment, but at the same time advance the plot, deeper a character, and challenge the reader.
From Somewhere in the Darkness, by Walter Dean Myers (p. 43-44)
“I got some friends in Cleveland,” Crab said. “We could stay here a while.”
“I thought you had a job in Chicago,” Jimmy said.
Crab pushed the bacon to one side and broke the yolks of his eggs with his toast. He blotted up the egg yolk with the toast and then put the toast in his mouth. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said.
He looked tired.
The door opened and a man came in rolling a small barrel.
“Somebody go ask Paris if he wants some fish,” the man said.
“He wants some fish,” the girl who had served them said. “They fresh?”
“They so fresh they think they out for a walk on the beach,” the man said, grinning and showing a gold tooth. “I told them I’m taking them back to the water soon as I have my coffee!”
“If they believe that then they some stupid fish,” the man with the tools on his belt said.
“All fish are stupid,” the fish man said. “That’s why you can put them goldfish in a bowl and they just swim back and forth and don’t even care.”
“Give me twenty pounds of fish,” the girl said. She had come around the counter and looked into the barrel. “They porgies, right?”
“Mostly porgies,” the fish man said. “Got a few whitings in there, too.”
“Yeah, well, make it thirty pounds,” the girl said.
Jimmy saw Crab jump. He was holding back the curtain so he could see out the window. Jimmy looked over and saw a cop talking to the service station attendant. They talked for a while and then the cop walked on. Crab let the curtain go and went back to his eating.