Read Ismail Muhammad’s foreword, published by the New Yorker.
Tragic Magic is the story of Melvin Ellington, a.k.a. Mouth, a Black, twenty-something, ex-college radical who has just been released from a five-year prison stretch after being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Brown structures this first-person tale around Ellington’s first day on the outside. Although hungry for freedom and desperate for female companionship, Ellington is haunted by a past that drives him to make sense of those choices leading up to this day.
Through a filmic series of flashbacks, the novel revisits Ellington’s prison experiences, where he is forced to play the unwilling patsy to the predatory Chilly and the callow pupil of the not-so-predatory Hardknocks; then dips further back to Ellington’s college days, where again he is led astray by the hypnotic militarism of the Black Pantheresque Theo, whose antiwar politics incite the impressionable narrator to oppose his parents and to choose imprisonment over conscription; and finally back to his earliest high school days, where we meet in Otis, the presumed archetype of Ellington’s “tragic magic” relationships with magnetic but dangerous avatars of Black masculinity in crisis. But the effect of the novel cannot be conveyed through plot recapitulation alone, for its style is perhaps even more provoking than its subject.
Originally published in 1978, and edited by Toni Morrison during her time at Random House, this Of the Diaspora edition of Tragic Magic features a new introduction by author Wesley Brown.
Praise for Tragic Magic
“Tragic Magic is a tremendous affirmation. One hell of a writer.”
“[A] vibrant riff on Blackness, manhood, and jazz.”
—The New Yorker
“Wesley Brown’s Tragic Magic is an underrated classic in the vein of my favorite albums. This is a book worth holding close and hugging hard. There has been much talk about the literary foreparents to hip-hop culture and for my money Brown has to take his place alongside the likes of the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyoricans, Piri Thomas, and Julius Lester. Pick this one up and ride alongside a masterful storyteller.”
—Nate Marshall, author of Finna: Poems
“A prescient ancestor to today’s insurgent, boundary-breaching African American fiction … deserves rediscovery by a new generation of readers curious about where an earlier generation of Black protest came from and how they came through its challenges.”
“As relevant today as when first brought to print … excels in its line-level risks, intellectual depth, and wide-ranging cultural and political subject matter.”
“A captivating read … precisely structured and movingly written.”
About Of the Diaspora
McSweeney’s Of the Diaspora is a series of previously published works in Black literature whose themes, settings, characterizations, and conflicts evoke an experience, language, imagery and power born of the Middle Passage and the particular aesthetic which connects African-derived peoples to a shared artistic and ancestral past. Tragic Magic, the first novel in the series, was originally published in 1978 and championed by Toni Morrison during her tenure as an editor at Random House. Tragic Magic will be followed by Paule Marshall’s novel of a Harlem widow claiming new life, Praisesong for the Widow (originally published in 1983 and a recipient of the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award). The series is edited by writer Erica Vital-Lazare, a professor of creative writing and Marginalized Voices in literature at the College of Southern Nevada. Published in collectible hardcover editions with original cover art by Sunra Thompson, the first three works hail from Black American voices defined by what Amiri Baraka described as strong feeling “getting into new blues, from the old ones.” Of the Diaspora-North America will be followed by series from the diasporic communities of Europe, the Caribbean and Brazil.
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