These sorts of lists have been for too long, to borrow a line from the TV show “black-ish,” whiter than the inside of Conan O’Brien’s thigh.
“Oreo” might have changed how we thought about a central strand of our literature’s DNA. As the novelist Danzy Senna puts it in her introduction to this necessary reissue: “ ‘Oreo’ resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women today. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about her work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South.”
Instead, in “Oreo” Ms. Ross is simply flat-out fearless and funny and sexy and sublime. It makes a kind of sense that, when this novel didn’t find an audience, its author moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s to write for Richard Pryor.
The first pages of “Oreo” tell you a lot of what you need to know about this novel’s comic tone and the ways Ms. Ross stirs Yiddish into black vernacular to barbed effect.
In Paragraph 1, a Jewish boy in Philadelphia informs his mother that he’s dropping out of school to marry a black girl. His mother “let out a great geshrei,” Ms. Ross writes, “and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.”
In Paragraph 2, across town, the black girl informs her father she’s marrying the Jewish boy. He “managed to croak one anti-Semitic ‘Goldberg!’ before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika.” Dad remains a half-swastika’d pretzel for most of the novel.
With that, this book is off and burning strange American rubber. The couple has a dark-skinned son they name Moishe. They also have a daughter, Christine, known as Oreo, who is this novel’s heroine. The book is her teenage quest, in bumpy parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus, to find her father, who fled to New York City when she was young.
There’s a good deal of Pam Grier in Oreo. Tired of watching men beat women with impunity, she develops a system of self-defense she calls “the Way of the Interstitial Thrust, or WIT.” She deploys WIT in so many ways.
In one scene, on the prowl for her dad, she steals a pimp’s cane and gives him “a grand-slam clout” across the rear: “If his howl meant anything, it meant that he was now the only person on the block with four cheeks to sit on.” She grows pretty fearsome, for a little thing.
About what happens when Louise is at the stove, we read: “Five people in the neighborhood went insane from the bouquets that wafted to them from Louise’s kitchen. The tongues of two men macerated in the overload from their salivary glands. Three men and a woman had to be chained up by their families.”
When Oreo hands out some of Louise’s food on a train near Trenton, “groans and moans were heard amidst all the fressing.” There are spontaneous orgasms among the eaters. Food provides a lot of this novel’s offbeat imagery. In one scene Oreo grows so hungry she thinks to herself about deprivation: “It was what General Mills must go through when Betty Crocker was in mittelschmerz,” pain from ovulation.
It’s tempting to keep quoting Ms. Ross. Her throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers’ studied arias. When Oreo enters a New York City luncheonette for “a hot-sausage sandwich, a Shabazz bean pie and a Pepsi,” for example, she finds herself studying the woman behind the counter, who is reading a magazine.
“Oreo did a double-take. Vogue? She had misjudged the woman. Harper’s Bazaar, yes; Vogue, no, she would have sworn. Oreo now saw that she had missed the gaining-circulation squint of the eyes, the condé nast flare of the nostrils. Oreo was disappointed in herself. It was like mixing up the Brontës.” These lines sent a flare up my own nostrils.
“Oreo” is acid social criticism, potent because it is lightly worn. One of the advantages of Philadelphia over New York City, Oreo comments, is that Philadelphia has “red and white police cars so you can shout, ‘Look out, the red devil’s coming!’ ” She makes the case that coily hair (she prefers this phrase to “kinky hair”) is a clear evolutionary improvement over straight because coily hair keeps your head cool in summer, warm in winter and protects “from concussions by absorbing the shock of blows to the head.”
Ms. Ross takes a cultivated and nearly Nabokovian joy in the English language. She turns the words “friedan,” as in Betty, and “kuklux” into verbs. She arrives at the following collective noun: “a rothschild of rich people.” She bruits the notion of “an emergency semicolon.” Even the puns click. Oreo is warned to look out for rock outcroppings on her travels because “Manhattan is full of schist.”
Ms. Ross, who worked in publishing, wrote for Essence and other magazines and lived near Zabar’s in the same building as Jules Feiffer, died in 1985 at 50. It’s a great loss that we never got another novel from her.
For this reissue, we owe a debt to Ms. Senna and to the novelist Paul Beatty, who sang this novel’s praises in his influential anthology “Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor” (2006).
In his introduction to that book, Mr. Beatty wrote about feeling browbeaten, as a young man, by many canonical works by black writers. He spoke of missing “the black bon mot, the snap, the bag, the whimsy” upon which righteous anger and freedom take flight.
“Oreo” has snap and whimsy to burn. It’s a nonstop outbound flight to a certain kind of readerly bliss. It may have been first published more than 40 years ago, but its time is now.
By Fran Ross
Illustrated. 230 pages. New Directions. $14.95.
A version of this review appears in print on July 15, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: As American as Knishes
|Subscription options||AdaOnline||NSJ Ada Annotations||L-Soft Search the archive||VN Bibliography Blog|
All private editorial communications are read by both co-editors.