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Finding a groove // From "heaven' to the music business


By Nelson George

Putnam, $23.95

Reviewed by Divina Infusino

At one point in Seduced, a rap musician, an unappealing guy named Donkey, chastises the novel's main character, Derek Harper: "Nigga," Donkey says, "You better wake up. You been living your whole life in a black child's heaven and don't even know it."

"A black child's heaven" was St. Albans, a stable middle class area of Queens, New York, in the mid-'60s. Harper, a budding rhythm-and-blues songwriter, grew up within a traditional family unit of father, mother and child. Harper describes St. Albans as a place with tidy lawns and backyards made for barbecues and wading pools; a place where on Saturdays, "fathers wore knit sweaters and Kangol caps while they washed their Cadillacs and sipped the local beers"; a place filled with families who were "direct beneficiaries of the civil rights movement, New York's long-standing commitment to unionization, liberal mayors and their (the residents') own years of hard toil."

Seduced is at its most compelling when author Nelson George delves into the differences between life in the projects and the middle class "heaven" of St. Albans and how it evolved over 30 years. Harper's father, whom he calls "Pops," ran a business in St. Albans as an undertaker, "one of the best damn jobs a black person can have. Always was," Harper claims. In the old South, undertaking was a profession free of white intervention and resentment. "The last thing a redneck wanted to do was deal with black dead bodies," Harper says.

Business was always good for Pops. But in the '80s, it boomed _ mostly from drug overdoses, gang warfare and its all too frequent innocent victims. Such were the ironies of the black middle class in urban America. Pops celebrated the tax breaks and deregulation, and the loan the bank was able to give him under Ronald Reagan's policies. Yet he realized that those same policies could and did end up destroying the people and neighborhood in which he lived. For Harper, the ironies, clashes and connections between life in St. Albans, the poorer inner city and mainstream white society were acted out within the milieu of the music business.

Harper was an R&B songwriter who crafted songs meant for soulful singing about romance and relationships, the kind of music associated with Marvin Gaye, sipping champagne and making love. In the course of advancing his career, however, Harper detours into rap, music too often associated with gangbanging and fast, impersonal sex. Harper becomes "seduced" by the music business' high lifestyle, big money and absence of emotional commitments other than to oneself. How he rediscovers the core of that child from St. Albans is the object of Seduced. Unfortunately, it is not one of the strongest points in George's second novel.

Those occur when George, a highly respected black music journalist, offers insightful but cogent commentary on music, or evokes a character with vivid economy, or throws himself into the feel and temper of a city. George has an obvious grasp of what life is really like in the music industry if you are not Michael Jackson or Prince _ and that is an area that is not often addressed. But a lot of George's account of life on the road is nothing new, especially the extended concert tour diary filled with sexual escapades and bad boy debauchery which preoccupies too much of the book. But it is through the tour and its after effects that Harper learns his lessons about love and sex, as well as commitment to something higher than gold chains, Gucci shoes and personal power. To get Harper to that point, the story structurally takes a leap or two. George could have delved further into his Harper's family life, his personal relations, his feelings about the more eyebrow-raising episodes, but instead of deep, George goes wide, and the novel suffers from occasional shallowness.

But George's writing is relaxed with no overwrought images or contrived turns of phrase jumping up and down for attention. His style is, well,"seductive," luring the reader into a world that takes in the range of black experience funneled through the music industry. George reaches beyond the vantage point of a "black child's heaven" and in the process offers a more complex view of contemporary black life.

Divina Infusino is a writer who lives in San Diego.