A review of Dead Piano by Henry Van Dyke

Throughout Dead Piano, there is a carefully evoked atmosphere, with recognizable and believable characters, but also strong farcical elements rooted in sudden reversals of conversational tone, with small matters becoming large, and accidents happening, and the establishment and/or subversion of alliances.

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Dead Piano
by Henry Van Dyke
Old School Books/W.W. Norton, 1997
Originally published by Farrar, Straus, 1971
200 pages, ISBN: 0393315428

Dead Piano is a novel about a black middle class Queens, New York, family whose home is invaded by self-proclaimed black revolutionaries. The family had received threatening letters that the parents, Finley and Olga, told their daughter Sophie were a hoax not to be taken seriously, though the mother had quietly shown them to the police. Most of the action takes place during a couple of hours of a single September evening in 1968. I first read the book about thirty years after the time-period in which the story is set (I read Dead Piano in September 1999). I published nothing then on Dead Piano, though I had made notes about it (“The book has aspects of a family drama, a thriller, a political dialog, and a social comedy; and the writing is balanced, controlled, masterful,” I wrote). Recently, walking in my own Queens neighborhood, walking past the two and three-story family homes, I thought again that we rarely see black middle class and working class families in literature or in film. That is a loss not merely of sociological insight but also of potential entertainment. I have returned to Dead Piano, originally published by Farrar, Straus in 1971 and republished by W.W. Norton in 1997; it is a short, quick, and entertaining read.

Dead Piano begins with the mother Olga’s anxiety about the sounds she hears through the walls of the family home, noises coming from outside. Carefully, slowly, as we perceive family tensions, we learn of the threatening letters. The family argues among itself, in a somewhat subtle but pointed way, then after its home is taken over by strangers, the family argues with its captors in a more direct fashion (the strangers, named Fargo, Hedda, and Cheeter, are coarse in manner–abrupt, disrespectful, full of petty assumptions). Fargo, like Olga, has a mindset, an overt vision of the world. He seems the leader of the captors and Olga seems the leader in her home. The first wild leap after the strangers arrive is inspired by a large teddy bear in the house. Sophie’s childhood gift is threatened and stabbed by Fargo; and then Sophie, to whom Fargo is drawn, gets Fargo to kiss the bear.

Fargo sees middle-class blacks as oppressive, as enemies of working-class and poor blacks. He also feels excluded from their world, a world he might like to enter. (Such contradictory responses were prevalent in the 1960s during the black power movement, the movement that affirmed the poorest urban (and typically northern) segment of the African-American population, and which succeeded the southern (and more rural) civil rights movement. One of the differences between the two movements may be that African-American southerners saw whites as, at least, distant neighbors, and northern blacks saw them as mostly hostile authorities. The black power movement had few members who were masters of institution building; and both its manner and its legacy can be seen in the repudiation of sophisticated intellectual effort, upward social mobility, standard English, and cordial manners, things that had value for civil rights activists. The black art movement, the cultural wing of the black power insurgency, may be seen in the development of what is called hip-hop. Amiri Baraka, who was once a great modern poet, and his colleagues and peers, introduced obscene and insulting language and hateful tones into black poetry; and helped to make vulgarity respectable. Hip-hop, a frequently vulgar language-based cultural form that utilizes sampled music, is connected to graffito and certain forms of clothing fashion, fashion often inspired by ill-fitting prison clothes–and hip-hop, in which the characters or imagery of black gangsters, pimps, and whores often appear, is itself a great influence on almost all popular culture. People used to aspire to emulate those with money; and now they seem to aspire to emulate those without money. It also seems that it is not now the alternative consciousness of the ghetto but the unconsciousness of the ghetto that is desired.) How the middle class sees itself and the poor, and how the poor sees itself and the middle class, make up an old theme for literature. Charges of vanity and lack of self-respect, of false security and desperation, of ambition and lack of it, and of moralism and decadence, are common place. Olga, the mother of the house, and Fargo glance into a mirror at the same time and each glimpses the other’s self-perception. Fargo’s companion Hedda seems to embody many of the assumptions about an unprivileged woman’s character; and her sexual history involves dependence on men and cruel sexual warfare, seduction followed by betrayal then vengeance, with recurring considerations of illusion versus reality and truth versus lie. Fargo requests, more than once, Sophie’s piano playing. He is attracted to her and to what the piano represents: skill, taste, leisure (in other words, class). Seeing Fargo’s attraction and insistence, Hedda grabs Finley’s crotch, a retributive gesture, vengeful. Finley, the father, is a gynecologist; and it may be an irony that his private parts are being touched by a stranger. (Hedda is there only for Fargo, out of her interest in him, and Fargo is there out of greed and resentment.)

While not overtly heroic, the black middle class family under siege is revealed as mostly decent and humane, but its best qualities are not the principal subject of the text. Central is their actual encounter with the intruders, and the family’s past. The humanity of all involved, and it is humanity at different stages–is the subtext of everything; and the novelist paints a sketch of American society. It is clear the intruders have a crude conception of the world, of society, and they have the energy and force to make others take their view seriously (at least for a short time).

There are several suggestions of a family secret; first around the presence of the teddy bear, then around Finley’s talk about hard work and sacrifice. The novel’s plot follows the unfolding of a culture clash and the revealing of the family secret. The secret event was witnessed by five-year old Sophie twelve or thirteen years before; and the secret involves questionable personal morality and professionalism; and the bear had been a guilt-gift to Sophie. Sophie drinks liquor after the revelation of the secret. (The author Henry Van Dyke says all recognize it as an adult gesture, a rite of passage.)

Throughout Dead Piano, there is a carefully evoked atmosphere, with recognizable and believable characters, but also strong farcical elements rooted in sudden reversals of conversational tone, with small matters becoming large, and accidents happening, and the establishment and/or subversion of alliances. Neighbors arrive. Scotty first, then his lookalike wife Sybil, come barging into the family home. Scotty is not very perceptive but Sybil is quick to sense what is going on and tries distraction and a phone call for help. Soon personal idiosyncrasies are uncovered, such as Fargo’s panty-sniffing; and he puts one of Sophie’s panties in his pocket–and that seems the eroticism of class difference as well as making a fetish out of the feminine. (Fargo also remembers an ex-friend’s homosexuality. Is the friend an ex-friend not merely because of Fargo’s prejudice but in light of his insecurity? Unexamined disregard for women and fear of homosexuality have been handed down to subsequent generations.) Fargo presents his own masculine sexuality and anger to the world, but not his vulnerability. Fargo’s vulnerability is something seen by Olga when the two share a mirror’s glance. Olga also realizes she has been jealous of her daughter’s youth.

When Olga has drunk too much, and is upset after Hedda takes Finley into another room, with the intention to rape him, there is a magical realist description of the furniture, in which it all seems alive.

Henry Van Dyke has created a situation in which revelation is possible, and what is revealed are pain, sacrifice, rage, confusion, and sexual desire.

In a mad painful rage, Olga grabs Fargo’s gun and she points it at herself and others, but finally she only shoots the piano. The intruders hear rallying neighbors alerted by gunshots; and they run away. Although the family knows the names of the captors, they apparently do not report them to the police. Fargo is free–first Sophie sees him as a bodyguard for a visiting college lecturer, then Olga sees him one day in a Harlem park. Both mother and daughter have taken up a form of social commitment–the mother’s involving children, the daughter’s involving a political group. They have been changed; and they get along better with each other. Fargo, adrift, is an ordinary worker, possibly the result of class constraints or lack of imagination or will. Olga and Finley, at the end of the novel, are home together, with Olga planning meals for her daughter’s return during a college break.

Dead Piano, which presents the interior observation of the characters, first-person monologues, and social discourse, in its exploration of an unusual event–a dramatic confrontation between classes and cultures–is smart, perceptive, charming, and intense. I recall now that Dead Piano was part of the impetus that inspired me to ask broader questions of African-American literature in particular, and of all texts: How do characters and action together develop a theme? How vigorous is the underlying argument in the text? Does the text distinguish among gossip, rumor, ideology, and logic, evidence, and truth? Do the characters embody distinct or complicated ways of being in the world? Does the writer use techniques that distort or subvert ordinary perception? Does the text give the reader a language and vision to take a more insightful look at his or her own life? This book, Dead Piano, is a wonderful novel.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AltRap.com, Anything That Moves, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Changing Men, The Humanist, IdentityTheory.com, Offscreen.com, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today.