Main image
4th September
2009
written by Tony
This isn't the ogirinal, but, stupidly, I forgot to take a picture.

This isn't the ogirinal, but, stupidly, I forgot to take a picture.

Wandering down the stacks in the fiction section of our local library branch Steph and I stumbled across this little yellow book nestled on the second shelf from the top. It has obviously been rebound into a quaint yellow cover with what appears to be a blue owl debossed on the cover (I would later learn this is, in fact, a vulture, or “Charleston Eagle,” to be precise) and the large name “Porgy” down the spine. Having recently been to Charleston and through Catfish row it seemed only reasonable to pick this book up. Porgy is set in the black tenements of Charleston in the early 20th century. It centers on the exploits of the eponym Porgy over the course of one summer. Porgy is a beggar and has a deformity that denies him the use of his legs, and after the source of his mobility (Peter and his horse) is unjustly jailed, he takes to getting around in a small cart pulled by a slowly putrefying goat. It’s interesting, for the purpose of this story, to note that a porgy is a bottom feeding fish that swims in shallow waters. Bottom feeder that he is, Porgy’s meager livelihood depends on the kindness of passing strangers as well as his “regulars” and suffers for a time at the hands of goat stink and rampant dice playing. Eventually a transient woman of ill repute named Bess moves in with Porgy and they begin to have the trappings of a stable life together. It so happens that Bess “belongs” to a man named Crown, a man Porgy witnessed murdering another over a gambling dispute and who is now currently on the run. Heyward based the character of Porgy on the life of Samuel Smalls, who lived in Catfish row at the time Heyward was in Charleston. Despite this, it’s easy to forget that this was written and set in the early 20th century. Other than the abolition of slavery it would appear that little of the racial dynamic that existed pre-emancipation has changed. The blacks are “allowed” to spend their wages as they see fit, but are still essentially thrall to any and every white person who cares to pay attention. Such is the case of Porgy’s friend Peter; Peter witnessed the murder at the dice game, and as such is imprisoned until he can give testimony. Very little about this book is anything other than soul grindingly depressing. If you are feeling catatonic or need a pick-me-up this is not the book for you. Despite the grim nature of the story, the writing is inspired and Heyward’s sparkling prose does justice to the grimy world he transcribes. It’s not a particularly long book, in fact I read it in just a day, but by the end Porgy and a few others are living, breathing people and the sorrow I felt at the last page was palpable. I won’t lie, the last two pages of this book nearly broke my heart with grief. Heyward presents the world as a colossally unfair and cruel place that grinds the bones of the weak relentlessly, so be prepared. Despite the gloom, there are a few moments where Porgy steps into the sun and really has a chance to shine. The happiness I felt for him at those moments was wonderful, and if anything, this book teaches about perspective. Porgy’s wonderful, shining moments are two. If I found myself in his situation when he was at his best tomorrow, I’m not sure I would make it through the day, but reading this book made my heart do a little skip for Porgy. There isn’t much more to say about Porgy without giving away much of the plot, and there isn’t much more I feel I need to say. This is a powerfully affecting work, though I wouldn’t say it’s cathartic, not in the truest sense, because it certainly didn’t expel any of my “toxic” emotions. I have a lot of respect for its power though, I have read few books that were able to so effectively move my emotions around with such an apparent free will. At first, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about this book. I know how it made me feel, but because of all the emotion it stirred up I was left wondering what emotions were attached to what. After some thought and some time away from the book I realized that not only did this book profoundly affect me emotionally, it was one of the few books I have read in a long time to do so with such force. 5 out of 5

5 Comments

  1. 09/04/2009

    I read this some years ago since Porgy and Bess is my favorite opera, and I cried for oh, maybe six hours, after finishing!

  2. 09/04/2009

    Part of me is upset that you didn’t have me read this before we returned it to the library, but then again, I’m not sure if I’m in a place where I want to knowingly read a book that makes me cry for 6 hours afterwards! 😉 But I’m going to remember it the next time I need/want a book that makes me hurt.

  3. 09/07/2009

    I’ve heard of Porgy and Bess, but never really knew the story behind them. This seems like an powerfully emotional book, and one that I think I would really like to read. It seems like a book that really touched you, and you won’t soon forget. Awesome review, I will be picking this book up very soon.

  4. 01/26/2012

    Yes, the ending is tremendously sad. But, I found much of the story exhilarating. I was joyful to read about Porgy’s increased Indpendance and mobility. In particular, the chapter describing Charleston from the new freedom made possible by the goat cart was magical.

Leave a Reply