Singing In The Comeback Choir

Christine Muhlke reviews 'Singing in the Comeback Choir' by Bebe Moore Campbell

By Christine Muhlke

Published March 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Bebe Moore Campbell, the author of "Brothers and Sisters" and "Your Blues Ain't Like Mine," has done an extraordinary thing with her new novel, "Singing in the Comeback Choir" -- she's crafted a smooth, deeply witty novel that will appeal to fans of both Terry McMillan and Dorothy Allison. Her eye for detail and ear for colloquial black language -- from No'th Ca'lina to South Central -- brings her fiction alive. Best of all, beneath Campbell's easygoing style lies an intelligent, heartfelt story that packs a surprising emotional punch.

Campbell's protagonist, Maxine McCoy, has made it from the streets of Philadelphia, where she was raised by her flamboyant jazz-singer grandmother, Lindy, to the flowering hills of Hollywood, where she produces a talk show that tries (and sometimes fails) not to be sleazy. Ignoring the twinges of a spiritual conflict that stems from wanting to help less-fortunate blacks -- like the hopeless ghetto teens she taught while trying to break into television -- and wanting to make it in the soulless world of television, Maxine knows she'd "come too far and fought too hard to take [her] title for granted." She and her handsome, successful, dishwashing(!) husband are trying to heal the wounds of a miscarriage and infidelity when Maxine is told she has to pull the show out of a ratings slump or look for another job and find a new caretaker for 76-year-old Lindy, who is consoling herself after a stroke with scotch, Kools and heavy doses of Carmen McRae. Putting her job on the line, Maxine returns to her childhood home, where she tries to get Lindy to straighten up and fly right and leave her now-dangerous neighborhood. In the graffiti-covered house, Maxine's "Harriet-Tubman-Mary-McLeod-Bethune-Lift-
Every-Voice-And-We-Shall-Overcome complex" kicks in, and soon she's trying to bring both the neighborhood and her once-fiery grandmother back to life.

Music plays an important part in this book's language and metaphors, as well as its plot. Campbell's gift for rhythm and melody keep the pages flying, with sentences like, "Lindy's voice was a skater, dipping, leaping, twirling, cool as the ice it floated across. Cool. Cool. Cool." Divas like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday are invoked to set Lindy's mood. Characters and settings are vividly constructed, all representative of the different worlds Maxine has fought to exist in and moves so easily between. Especially funny (and scary) are her glimpses into the world of talk shows.

The unfortunate question asked of most books written by popular female African-American writers is, "Is it literature?" In Campbell's case, the answer is, "Not exactly, but who the hell cares?" I devoured this book in an evening and went to bed wet with tears. "Singing in the Comeback Choir" speaks to readers of all races, and it carries Campbell's signal message: With love, laughter, hope and hard work, women can turn shit around.

Christine Muhlke

Christine Muhlke is the managing editor of Paper magazine.

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