Book Review - Nelson George and Bernice L. McFadden rewrite history

The two novelists appear at the Hammonds House on Feb. 21

Conventional wisdom tells us that "History is written by the victors," but that phrase may need some updating for our time. How about "History is written by the Wikipedia contributors?" It doesn't have the same poetic ring, but it seems right. The combination of poetry and history is best left to historical novelists like Nelson George and Bernice L. McFadden, who arrive in Atlanta this week with two different versions of rewriting history that both show how fictive accounts can have real resonance.

George, whose prolific career as a cultural critic and music journalist began with the early days of hip-hop in New York, has penned a mystery novel that weaves his behind-the-scenes knowledge of hip-hop into the classic noir structure. The Plot Against Hip Hop proves that this is an inspired pairing: Hip-hop has long toyed with associations to organized crime in a way that intentionally obscures the line between theater and documentary. That kind of uncertainty, the "Is he or isn't he a bad guy" question, is the meat that mystery plots thrive on.

George's version of the hard-boiled but reluctant detective is D Hunter, security guard to the rich and fabulous hip-hop elite. He secures parties at Russell Simmons' mansion in the Hamptons, BET award ceremonies, commercial shoots for Sprite, and so on. In just the first three pages, George manages to name drop Jay Z, Diddy, Andre 3000, Andre Harrell, Q-Tip, Simmons, Doug E. Fresh, Rakim, Red Alert, Treacherous Three, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and De La Soul. (I might have even missed one in there.) This telegraphing of cultural context feels a bit forced, but, once the novel gets going, we come to understand D as a man who has been around long enough to have history with hip-hop's major players.

D's relatively comfortable life of taking big checks and standing aside Hova and friends is turned upside down when Dwayne Robinson, a cultural critic and D Hunter's close friend, shows up stabbed and dying at D's office door. In a melodramatic burst of cryptic statements and flowing blood worthy of a Billy Wilder flick, Dwayne dies in D's hands. This sends D on a mission to find out why Dwayne was killed. What he manages to rustle up includes nothing less than undercover FBI agents running record labels, secret corporate studies of the hip-hop market, answers to who killed Biggie and Tupac, and, oh, an aside about Lil Wayne being set up, among other things.

If all that conspiracy stuff sounds a bit silly, well, it is silly and it's also great fun. George's most pleasurable skill as a writer is weaving the factual texture of history and real people into the fabric of his fictional world. Did Kanye West really release a video game named Graduate Student? I don't know, but when it pops up in a chapter here, it seems both hilarious and completely believable. George alludes to lyrics by Notorious B.I.G. in the same way Chandler would nod to the poets of his time. All of this adds up to a clever play on the past few decades of cultural history, rewriting what we already know into a neatly drawn web of dark and seedy secrets.

Bernice L. McFadden takes on history with a deeply different weight. Her new novel, Gathering of Waters, explores the history surrounding the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a major event in Civil Rights history. Rather than sticking close to the events of Till's death, Gathering of Waters looks at generations before and after Till's life in Money, Miss.

McFadden's tack for establishing historical context couldn't be further away from George's style of quick, concrete name-dropping. Consider the opening passage:

"I am Money. Money Mississippi.

I have had many selves and have been many things. My beginning was not a conception, but the result of a growing, stretching, and expanding, which took place over thousands of years.

I have been figments of imaginations, shadows and sudden movements seen out of the corner of your eye. I have been dewdrops, falling stars, silence, flowers, and snails."

That spectral, all-knowing, mythic voice of the town drives Gathering of Waters and allows McFadden to explore the resonance of Till's life and death without the rigid limitations of history. So much has already been written about Till's death, probably best by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, that writing a novel centered on it risks repeating what has already been said. McFadden's real contribution is to ignore the wider historical context of Till and focus in on emotional, human aspects of his story. McFadden's magical touches are a refreshing, unexpected approach to the hard facts. Wikipedia entries can only do so much. Novelists like McFadden and George get at truths that the facts can't.

Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden. Akashic Books. $15.95. 250 pp.

The Plot Against Hip Hop by Nelson George. Akashic Books. $15.95. 176 pp.

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