Gorilla, My Love
Toni Cade Bambara
First published 1960
I first read this collection of short stories when I was in college, back in the late 1980s. It stunned me so deeply, I’ve remembered it—especially the title story—for decades. I should write a letter of thanks to the college professor who first turned me on to it, but I no longer remember who it was. Well, I’m sending thanks out to the universe, anyway, because the stories of Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara have rumbled around my head, flavoring everything I’ve written and everything I’ve read since.
Fifteen short stories, each told in the first-person voice of a different character (or sometimes a 3rd-person limited omniscient, as if privy to the thoughts of a character), make up the collection. It feels as if all the characters are neighbors, all know each other, and are all talking smack about each other (though the collection isn’t set up that way).
What resonates most for me about these stories is, first, the voices and, second, the rhythm.
The voices seem so believably right. The title story, “Gorilla, My Love,” is told by a young girl (Hazel) who feels betrayed by the adults in her world. She goes with her brothers to see a film she thinks will be a gorilla movie (perhaps like King Kong, but even better), but is furious to find out she (and the entire audience of rowdy kids) has been tricked. “So the movie come on,” the narrator says, “and right away it’s this churchy music and clearly not about no gorilla. Bout Jesus. And I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don’t wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff.” She and her brothers—and the whole audience—start a little popcorn-and-kicking riot, the harmless kind of tantrum one is inclined to throw in the face of powerlessness and betrayal.
Layered in an around this narrative is the story of the narrator’s loss of her Hunca Bubba, who gets married and starts going by his full proper Christian name (Johnathan Winston Vale). He’d promised, probably jokingly, to marry the narrator when she grew up, and was always the adult she could count on for friendship and understanding. Suddenly, he’s gone deep into the adult world and she’s left on the outside. Hazel has nobody but the other kids, all of them feeling the sting of the things adults promise but don’t really mean.
Every narrator’s voice feels true in this way, pulsing with the character’s needs, passions, anger. But it’s not a bitter collection in the least. It feels wistful. It feels true. It’s sometimes funny with a gentle, kind humor (the kind that doesn’t have to knock anybody down to make its mark).
As for the rhythm, I don’t simply mean the rhythm of the prose itself—though that is beautifully done. I remember when I was studying writing in college, and someone suggested to me that the major concern of poetry was at the level of the sentence and language, but the major concern of fiction was at the level of concept and story. I still think that’s wrong—good poets and good fiction-writers should always be concerned with both the big picture and the details. The best fiction writers, I think, compose every line of prose as if it were a line of poetry, that carefully. In Gorilla, My Love, words matter.
What I mean by “rhythm” is both the language-level rhythm (which, here, is masterful) and the ig-picture rhythm. Each story opens, build and closes in a sigh or a scream. The stories of the collection build upon one another to make a greater picture, so that the final story, “The Johnson Girls,” takes some of its effect from the momentum built by the stories that came before it. The last line—“’Right,’ say Gail, and lights my cigarette”—doesn’t sound particularly important until you’ve been carried to it by the story, by the whole book. Ending the collection on this line, then gives it extra weight, and I usually break into tears at the resignation it suggests.
I mean, you kinda have to be there (read it) to get it.