Nicholson, David. Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City. Arlington, VA: Paycock Press, 2015. 147 pp.  $12.95 (paper).

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Reviewed by Brian Gilmore

In the 1937 essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Richard Wright wrote that “no theory of life can take the place of life.” It is, according to Wright, “the task of the writer to plant flesh upon those bones out of his will to live.”  Considering Wright was writing what James Baldwin and others once deemed “protest literature,” the effectiveness of his writing was rooted in his ability to make his characters come to life in a meaningful way.

Though Washington, D.C. writer David Nicholson did not choose Wright’s burden of making protest literature soar as art, Nicholson does take Wright’s words to heart in Flying Home: Seven Stories from the Secret City, his debut collection. Nicholson’s characters and their troubled, complex lives, become flesh and bones but also rich and meaningful. Many of us know characters like Tyson, the former Negro League ball player in Nicholson’s “Seasons.” Here, “flesh” does get placed “upon those bones”  and what happens to Tyson becomes important—one of the key components of accessible storytelling.

Overall, Flying Home presents stories from the “secret city,” that part of Washington D.C. (or the scattered components and history) chronicled by historian Constance McLaughlin Green in her 1969 book Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital. That history is the city’s relationship to its black citizens, many of whom Nicholson pays tribute to here with a series of colorful tales about ordinary people.

Nicholson is able to create an impressive collection through a careful command of language. His writing is musical and deliberate. Hisnarration is unhurried—from the first story, “Get on the Good Foot,” which alludes to the late soul star James Brown, to the closing story, “Saving Jimi Hendrix.”

One of the gems here is “Among the Righteous,” a tale that appeared years ago in one of Richard Peabody’s Gargoyle issues. It is the story of “Odis Renfro” (the name alone takes you somewhere else), a “janitor, stock clerk and general handyman at Speidell’s Auto Parts Warehouse” just let go from his job and brooding about deeply about the lack of loyalty he has been shown by a long time employer. Odis is proud but not necessarily the confrontational type, though his loving wife, Daisy, is. A worrisome soul and keeper of the family, Daisy wants Odis to cash in his seventeen years of goodwill with his boss, despite the hardship the boss has passed onto Odis with the reduction-in-force notice. Daisy, the self-assured rock in a black family, faces a crossroad and will push Odis along to the cusp of action.

“You could go back and tell the man he c’aint fire you,” is one of many memorable lines from a story of man doing his own version of Hamlet. Odis, who Nicholson allows readers to get to know well, can’t run from Daisy.

“Among the Righteous” is a teaser of a story because it is followed by the even more solid “Seasons.” It is another example of Nicholson being able to draw readers in despite the absence of any giant task for his characters. No protest, no march, no stand against “the man” that seeks to summon the heroic. Nor is there any flash to their lives related to fast streets or money, love, controversy or sex; these are just regular people of the city, living their lives, and surviving.

“Seasons” is a slow boil and written so well done you want it to go on or at least simmer longer so Nicholson can take you into their hearts and souls. Tyson and Garnet, a couple emotionally distant to each other, stagger through their days, but the paradox is really Tyson’s. His life, for the most part, ended one storied night during the era of the Negro League baseball when he pitched in a barnstorming game against Babe Ruth. Tyson wants to prove his worth and the worth of black people (especially Negro League ballplayers) all in one moment by facing down the great slugger. Yet Tyson is haunted by this moment, especially because of Jesse, a young kid who loves baseball and has his own dreams of greatness. The exaggeration of a story is slowly destroying Tyson and any connection he has to his wife, Garnet—considering Jesse is the son of the couple Garnet works for as a housekeeper. Nicholson’s slow-building tension stretches over pages, layer by layer.

Though it stands as its own story, the title story, “Flying Home,” acts as the anchor for all of these stories.  It seems, for the most part, that Nicholson, the Washington, D.C. native, is seeking a return in these stories—trying to remember and recall the city that shaped him and his art. Shepherd, the focus of “Flying Homes,” has returned and sees his city and neighborhood:

He knows why he’s brought her, but now that they’re here in the old neighborhood, on the same familiar street, in front of the very house he grew up in, Shepherd isn’t sure what he’s supposed to show his daughter. It’s been more than seventeen years since the death of the woman he sometimes calls his mother, a slip born of grief becomes wishful thinking that he almost always catches before he’d have to correct himself.

When Maravella Whitaker, a woman Shepherd knows from high school emerges in the story and takes center stage in the tale, Shepherd’s journey into the past comes full circle.  Maravella represents the city that is lost to Shepherd, the one he cannot get back to no matter how hard he tries.

Of all the stories, “Saving Jimi Hendrix” is one I was most hopeful for because of who is the story’s subject and the chances it takes. The memoir feel of the text does disrupt the rhythm a bit, though it is hardly a failure.  Nicholson simply sets the bar high with all of the other stories that introduce you to Washington D.C.’s heart and soul and it almost feels like an encore from a concert that is good but not as great as the other tunes. Of course, the Hendrix story belongs here; it just faces stiff competition.

Overall, Flying Home is quite a collection of fiction. It is often said a renaissance of black male fiction is upon us. Nicholson, as Washingtonians such as myself know, has been at his craft for quite some time. This book, long overdue considering his connections to the city and the people, is no surprise.

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BRIAN GILMORE is is the author of three collections of poetry, including his latest We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters, a 2014 NAACP Image Award and 2015 Hurston/Wright Award nominee in poetry.  He is a long time columnist with the Progressive Media Project, and is both Cave Canem Fellow and Kumbilio Fellow. He teaches public interest law at Michigan State University.