The Washington Post
By Kevin Brown
March 21, 1993
JAPANESE BY SPRING
By Ishmael Reed
Atheneum. 225 pp. $20
FOR CERTAIN readers concerned with the life of language and of the art of the novel, Ishmael Reed is
something of an exemplar among the previous generation of African-American writers. Poet, critic, novelist
and playwright, Reed was associated with the Black Aesthetic Movement during the '60s and, with Ted Joans
and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones in those days), was an exponent of Beat-influenced jazzy poetry. His first novel,
The Free-Lance Pall-Bearers, was highly praised. Reckless Eyeballing made famous his feud with so-called
"black male bashing" African-American feminists. And, as a post-modernist narrative, Mumbo Jumbo has been
Japanese by Spring, set in Oakland after the earthquake of 1989, amid trade wars, rising anti-Japanese
sentiment at home and anti-Americanism in Japan, is a black comedy of political correctness and multicultural
On the campus of Jack London College, however, it's politics as usual. The Old Miltonians wage Holy War with
heretic deconstructionists and New Historicists. Chief among Reed's "gender-first" feminists, "think-tank black
pathology gangsters" and "talented-tenth aristrocrats" is Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt. "Uncle Ben," a
kulturpolitik opportunist attired in his uniform of blue blazer and gray slacks, mouthing assimilationist
platitudes and denouncing the music of Miles Davis, is part of "the growing anti-affirmative action industry."
Meanwhile, flush from the conquest of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, the Japanese are on the
march. Realizing that "the smart money was on Japan," Puttbutt answers a newspaper ad, determined to learn
Japanese by spring. "If the Asian thing was going to fly, he wanted at least to be in coach . . . Studying Japanese
would put him where the yen was."
Puttbutt's timing is uncanny. As swiftly as a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese overrun Jack London
College. Puttbutt's Japanese teacher, Dr. Yamato, turns out to be the new puppet president. And during Dr.
Yamato's two-month reign of terror, Puttbutt becomes his henchman, administering culturally biased IQ tests,
firing folks left and right.
Outrageous and provocative, Reed's Dunciad should be read less for conventional plot and fully rounded
characters than for sharp caricature. Like verbal bebop, artfully staccato sentence fragments -- fast-paced,
abruptly changing rhythm and direction (especially effective in interior monologue) -- provide a framework for
brilliant discursive asides on music, literature and linguistics.
Reed's satirical take on the Culture Wars is infinitely more effective than a Blooming jeremiad. His scope is
global, his color (City Lights, nostalgic North Beach cafes), vividly local. And although riotously funny in places,
the cumulative effect is less than devastating.
The first principle of satire is that it should be less absurd than what's being satirized. At times, Reed's comic
gift seems compromised by what he himself calls "lazy left-wing analysis." Here and there, the Afrocentric
inanities of the Cleopatra School of historiography are exceeded only by the windy, village-explaining
preachments of the Ezra Pound School of Political Economy. Vitiated by its extreme, newspaper-clipping-novel
topicality, Japanese by Spring, particularly toward the end, lapses into the kind of artless agitprop that still too
much afflicts even newer generations of the old Negro Problem Novel. And, at its best, multiculturalism is
more than just a laundry list of exotic cuisines.
All of which notwithstanding, academic satire is a most happy medium for Ishmael Reed, who teaches at what
the Bay Area knows as Berserkley. Flying in the face of the critical tenet of the "death of the author," the novel,
in a self-advertisement worthy of Norman Mailer, features a cameo appearance by one "Ishmael Reed" a 54-
year-old Tennessean with strong ideas, who "could eat pork rinds with the best of them." A self-proclaimed
multiculturalist since the mid-'70s -- long before it was fashionable -- Ishmael Reed, taken at his own estimate,
is "a modest merchant . . . making available what he thought to be good quality literature . . ."
Ishmael is Hebrew for "outcast". But the irrepressible Ishmael Reed is now something of an institution. Which
explains, paradoxically, why only he could conceivably have gotten away with both the best and the worst
excesses of Japanese by Spring.
Kevin Brown, author of the biography "Romare Bearden," is currently at work on a biography of Countee