Point a camera at something, you change it.
Change is definitely in the air in the summer of 1928. With the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 the Grand brothers, silent-film director Micah, and his cameraman, partner and brother Izzy, might be feeling a bit of heat from the new kid on the block, the talkie. Their producer certainly is. Mired in debt and fearing for the future of his group’s stock in trade, he wants Micah and Iz to secure another foundation for their company. When he proposes that they go to Africa to create stock footage for sale to other companies, they are reluctant. But Micah has a bit of a problem with gambling, and really, really needs the money such a grand tour might generate.
The seed of the idea for O, Africa! came from an incident in the lives of the Korda brothers, who made several trips to Africa in the early period of moviemaking to create a vault of B-roll footage of the bush—an anecdote that immediately suggested to me a big, freewheeling book that could accommodate many of the themes that most interest me. – from KGB Bar interview
They do not get to Africa until about a hundred pages in, so there is a lot of local color to absorb. Historical figures, whether by reference or named overtly, are a large presence here. Babe Ruth pops by for a cameo in a film they are shooting in Coney Island. There are gangster sorts that seem lifted from the pages of Damon Runyon or Elmore Leonard. At least a few, such as Bumpy Johnson, and Stephanie St. Clair, are fictionalized versions of historical NYC baddies. The brothers’ leading man, Henry Till, is an avatar of silent film comedy star Harold Lloyd, complete with signature eyeglasses, and damaged hand.
Conn’s love for cinema shines through. O, Africa is a celebration of film-making and the characters involved, and includes a look at the first Oscars night. And while the characters may not always be the purest of the pure, they are certainly colorful. Micah, although married and a father, is a committed philanderer. But he is most heavily involved with a light-skinned black woman, Rose. Iz has complications of his own. He is so closeted that he makes his first appearance in O, Africa in a box. A dwarfs wrestles well beyond his stature, and a gangster has that most Hollywood of things to offer, a screenplay.
There is range in Conn’s tonality. There is a light touch in looking at the brothers’ lives in the beginning, but events take place that call for a much more serious approach, and the lightness floats away.Conn’s content (Conntent?) is considerable. He looks at a slew of minorities. Conn’s 1920s gangsters (with the trailing “er” intact) do not fit the usual image we have of tommy-gun-toting bank robbers and Prohibition-fueled thieves, killers and smugglers. These mobsters are black. He includes a dwarf director, a mixed race relationship and an adult gay virgin.
You have these different minority characters who are trying to find a way in, a way into the culture and, you know, it could be either through some sort of artistic endeavor or criminality. But the instinct is the same. It’s all trying to break through somehow. – from Momemt Mag interview
There is some powerful imagery. A dump site near the African village is particularly poignant. Subtlety does not always rule, however, as we are treated to a bludgeoning when it comes to interpreting a nightly film showing.
Sometimes, it seems that the author is trying too hard to sound substantive, and it comes across as stretching rather than insight. …heading west is an instinct, too. It has to do with mortality, catching the last light before it slips beyond the horizon. Such an impulse is as likely related to fleeing one’s creditors.
Conn’s eyes must need a rest after all the winking to the reader he does regarding references to future events. King Kong, black exploitation films, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Where’s Waldo, Cheech and Chong and the crash of 1929 jumped out at me. There are doubtless many others. I found these to be distancing.
Occasionally, a bit of fact-checking or at least explanation seemed in order. An African village is reported to have a considerable number of bison horns on display. There are no bison in Africa. Ditto a reference to a local lemur. Lemurs exist in nature only in Madagascar and not on the African mainland.
So, what to make of all this? It is pretty clear that the author has put in a considerable amount of work to create O, Africa. There is much to enjoy in this book, and a fair bit to learn. Conn offers a Kavalier and Klay-like portrait of an early time in a particular art-form and in an era that is interesting, lively and enjoyable. But the literary legerdemain on display here, like that which is often displayed on screens large and small, did not succeed in creating that necessary reader-character magical bond for me. There were moments, for sure, when this or that character seemed to breathe an actual breath, but I never felt truly engaged for more than a spurt here and there. O, Africa is definitely worth a few hours of your time, as long as you are looking for more of an intellectually than emotionally satisfying read.
I received a copy of O, Africa! from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.
Review posted – 8/7/14
Publication date – 6/10/14
This review has also been posted at Goodreads.com, or soon will be