It may be that the most enduring, affecting art produced within modern cultures develops when cultures are in crisis. Think about the greatest Russian literature. And think about the art that has come from black urban America in the final third of the 20th century. When beauty and destruction, oppression and exhaustion, history and outrage, love and grief combine, you get art distilled to such poignancy that it makes your heart literally ache. You get, for example, Funkadelic’s instrumental Maggot Brain, you get John Edgar Wideman and his brilliant, heartbreaking Two Cities.
Two Cities skips perspectives, delving most deeply into Kassima, a young woman who has lost a husband and two sons to AIDS and violence; Robert, the man who breaks the shell around her heart; and her tenant, ancient Mr. Mallory, a quiet man with a rich inner life and backstory.
The love between Kassima and Robert is a buoy neither expected to find, but one that nourishes long-dormant tendrils of sweetness and vulnerability in both of them. It's a love as sexy and sad as a doomed affair, as warm and kind as the strongest marriage.
These characters float between the decayed neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. They stay quiet and invisible out of self-preservation, though the cycle of young black men annihilating one another continues, and they are infected with sorrow and rage.
The subtitle for the novel is “A Love Story,” and this is the thread of hope that makes this novel so redemptive and powerful amidst so much grief – the relentless love of the characters for things that can slip away at any moment – each other, their cities, their culture, the homes they’ve built, the sons they’ve lost.