Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Long Night

Julian Mayfield (1928-1984) was an Army vet, taught at Cornell and spent the majority of his life as civil rights activist. He was often associated with communist sympathizers and was even invited to Cuba by Fidel Castro. The South Carolina native wrote a number of plays, adapting one (“417”) into his debut novel, “The Hit”, in 1957. Mayfield's most profound novel of his published trio is “The Long Night”, published in 1958 by Vanguard. 

With the description and book cover, it's easy to lump this novel into the crime paperback movement of the 1950s. The tag: “His gang turned on him, the cops were his enemies – the powerful, grim story of a kid on the run in the Harlem jungle.” Blanketing the novel with the sexy heels and mini skirt may have improved sales. Regardless of the clever crime marketing signatures, this novel shouldn't be misplaced into the genre. It just doesn't fit and I'm kicking myself for including it here. But, there's pieces that may appeal to genre fans so I continue.

Main character Fredrick Brown is a ten-year old lieutenant in a dominant Harlem neighborhood gang called The Comanche Raiders. It's a hot Friday night and Brown, nicknamed Steely by his gang, picks up $27 cash for his mother. She won it in some sort of game or street hustle and has trusted him to carry this money back home to her (shades of Jack & The Beanstalk). On his return trek, he runs into members of his own gang who physically assault him. The money is stolen and Brown is forced to locate $27 before he can return home.

Harlem's grime is on full display here. Mayfield isn't restrained, positioning young Brown in precarious situations. Hoping to score quick bucks, Brown robs a woman, steals a bike and receives another assault from a rival gang. The police don't assist, and soon Brown finds himself on the mean streets at midnight with little hope. In emotional flashbacks, we learn that Brown's father left the family to pursue college. Brown recalls various times of his young life and his interaction with his mother. The end is a bit of a surprise and wrapped the narrative up in an open-ended conclusion. 

This isn't a gem by any means, but could be viewed as a decent coming of age tale. Considering the timing of its release, Mayfield does a good job displaying the rough and tumble battles between inner city ethnic groups. At 140-pages and large font, it's an easy way to pass the time.