Small Demon
May 232011
 

I just finished I, Stagolee, Cecil Brown’s novel about the life of the semi-legendary Richard Shelton, aka, Stack Lee, Richard Lee, Staggerlee, etc. The figure of the “bad man” Stagolee comes down to us in a wide variety of folktales, blues, and ballads, all based on the story of Richard Lee shooting Billy Lions in a St. Louis barroom on Christmas in 1895. In some ways, Stagolee is the prototype in African American culture for the modern “gangsta” persona. I first got interested in this subject when I heard Tom Rush’s version of the ballad when I was a freshman in college. Brown’s novel catches the potent ambiguity and contradictions in the mythic character of Stagolee: He was a humanitarian, but also a pimp, a politician but also a killer, a riverboat roustabout and cab driver who nevertheless became a very rich man, an abuser of women who also loved women and was loved in return. Cecil Brown has also written a non-fiction account of Richard Lee’s fateful encounter with Billy Lions, Staggolee Shot Billy, which I think is more successful, not because it is more true, whatever that might mean,  but because it is more convincing as a piece of writing. My main problem wit I, Stagolee is the first-person point of view. On first thought, the idea of having the character from the ballad tell his own history must have seemed like a brilliant move, but it leads to all kinds of technical problems. Most ballads – virtually all of them, really – are in the third person for a good reason. A third-person narrator can dramatize action and present dialog in a way that a first-person narrator cannot. And combined with the problem, in this case, of having to present historical information and context with which the reader is not likely to be familiar, the technical decision turns out to force the novel into an awkward structure, especially at the end. Finally, there is the matter of the character Stagolee’s speech. He often sounds like a combination of a history professor and a character in a 19th century stage melodrama. I cannot decide whether this is a failure of technique, or an intentional strategy employed to give the reader some objective distance from this first-person narrator, perhaps in the service of political critique. This was what the German playwright Bertold Brecht recommended (and practiced) for a political theater and there is something Brechtian  about this novel.

 

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