Paperback, 320 pagesPublished March 4th 1986 by Penguin Books (first published 1985)
A world away from Brewster Place, yet intimately connected to it, lies Linden Hills. With its showcase homes, elegant lawns, and other trappings of wealth, Linden Hills is not unlike other affluent black communities. But residence in this community is indisputable evidence of “making it.” Although no one knows what the precise qualifications are, everyone knows that only certain people get to live there—and that they want to be among them.
Once people get to Linden Hills, the quest continues, more subtle, but equally fierce: the goal is a house on Tupelo Drive, the epitome of achievement and visible success. No one notices that the property on Tupelo Drive goes back on sale quickly; no one questions why there are always vacancies at Linden Hills.
In a resonant novel that takes as its model Dante’s Inferno, Gloria Naylor reveals the truth about the American dream—that the price of success may very well be a journey down to the lowest circle of hell.
“Fences…Even at the university: big, stone fences – and why? The gates are open, so it’s not to keep anybody out or in. Why fences?…To get you used to the idea that what they have in there is different, special. Something to be separated from the rest of the world. They get you thinking fences, man, don’t you see it? Then when they’ve fenced you in from six years old till you’re twenty-six, they can let you out because you’re ready to believe that what they’ve given you up here, their version of life, is special. And you fence your own self in after that, protecting it from everybody else out there…”
Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills is a truly sharp and discerning glimpse into the modern-day class hierarchy embedded within black culture. Within the exploration of this quest for upward mobility and affluence, this novel featured some of the most true-to-life dialogue since Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and biting social commentary that rang so insightfully and authentically that it could only be true (not to mention witty enough to make me laugh out loud at the sheer truth and reality in it).
Written and set in the mid-1980s, the societal reflections here were absolutely superb, truly bordering on Southern Gothicism in the way that each explored the mores and values of this society—at times even based in the South. This element honestly made this novel and was the foundation from which the rest of the plot was built. I wasn’t expecting the Gothic elements at play here, so that was definitely an added delight. In fact, Linden Hills models itself as a play off of the classic Dante’s Inferno, with each street further and further down the hill of the neighborhood being more and more sought after, and also more and more corrupt. That was a truly clever play on Naylor’s part and lent so many added dimensions to this novel as the main characters “descended” further and further into the neighborhood.
For me, reading Linden Hills was often like sitting back at home in our old kitchen 20 years ago, listening to the “grown folk” shoot the breeze and discuss their woes over Bundt cake; it felt like home, and the authenticity of the subject matter, and characters’ reactions to it, felt like warm arms surrounding me as I “descended” into Naylor’s version of Dante’s hellish Inferno with them.
Here, our main protagonists are Willie Mason and Lester Tilson, two 20-year-old poets and best friends—one from the “wrong side of the street” and the other just barely inside the gates of Linden Hills himself, who get a lesson in what class lines mean to people in this neighborhood. Over the few days leading up to Christmas, Willie and Lester stare into the various faces of agony the people in Linden Hills try to hide. Watching them as they go about their lives, they begin to understand the motivations that keep them all in the rat race that is “keeping up with the Joneses.” Lester, who lives in Linden Hills, has already seen the inner workings of the neighborhood, the attitudes of its residents and the lies they cloak themselves in, thus he takes these lessons that Willie is busy learning for granted—in fact, he teeters throughout the book with being bored with such observations to, as the novel progresses, railing against them, because those very motivations that drive the Lindenites are also what keep him on the periphery of it all, neither fitting into their molds nor residing on the “right street” within Linden Hills. It is in this way that Gloria Naylor illustrates not only the racial lines but the class prejudices between us all, using the literal analogy of who’s from the right side of the street and who’s not, making the class lines drawn throughout this neighborhood both topographically and societally based. As they tear back the mask of Linden Hills, Willie and Lester begin to formulate their own theories on what shapes the world around them:
“You know, my grandmother called it selling the mirror in your soul…I guess she meant giving up that part of you that lets you know who you are…So you keep that mirror and when it’s crazy outside, you look inside and you’ll always know exactly where you are and wat you are. And you call that peace…These people have lost that, Willie. They’ve lost all touch with what it is to be them. Because there’s not a damned thing inside anymore to let them know.”
In tackling these major themes, Naylor also elegantly delves into social issues from the often-fragile bonds of marriage, to the separation of college-educated black women from their counterparts, to the line between “acting white” and “acting black,” among other themes:
“He would have found the comments that he was trying to be white totally bizarre. Being white was the furthest thing from his mind, since he spent every waking moment trying to be no color at all.”
I’ll admit that the writing style vexed me at times, usually at a crescendo of activity near the end of a chapter. My one note of criticism here is that it read as if Naylor was trying too hard to be lyrical, and it didn’t flow effortlessly. In fact, those moments in the novel often read as disjointed and convoluted, and I had to reread several of those passages for comprehension.
**SPOILER** I also thought that the ultimate climax of the novel—the fire that really brought the theme of Dante’s Inferno to the foreground was rushed and wasn’t leant nearly the amount of time and care as passages of far lesser importance earlier in the novel. That was absolutely a missed opportunity, because the ending is what resonates with readers—not to mention, this particular ending would have been the cherry on top of otherwise beautifully Gothic undertones in Linden Hills. **END SPOILER**
All in all, Gloria Naylor showed poetic lyricism and incisor-like insight in her execution of this novel, and it is a book that I would happily read again. It is because of the narrative undercurrents that I place this novel in the Southern Gothic arena (and I’ll give it that pass since part of it was based in Georgia), and it’s because of the bumbling “crescendo prose” that I deduct 1 star. BUT, despite that deduction, Linden Hills has absolutely earned its spot in my “Oh Where Have You Been All My Life” collection, because very rarely indeed will you come across a novel with such poise and bite as this one. 4 stars ****
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Gloria Naylor was an African-American novelist whose most popular work, The Women of Brewster Place, was made into a 1984 film starring Oprah Winfrey.
Naylor won the National Book Award for first fiction in 1983 for The Women of Brewster Place. Her subsequent novels included Linden Hills, Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe. In addition to her novels, Naylor wrote essays and screenplays, as well as the stage adaptation of Bailey’s Cafe. Naylor also founded One Way Productions, an independent film company, and was involved in a literacy program in the Bronx.
A native New Yorker, Gloria Naylor was a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale University. She was distinguished with numerous honors, including Scholar-in-Residence, the University of Pennsylvania; Senior Fellow, The Society for the Humanities, Cornell University; the President’s Medal, Brooklyn College; and Visiting Professor, University of Kent, Canterbury, England. Naylor was the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for her novels and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for screenwriting.