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Middle-class souls on ice

Linden Hills, by Gloria Naylor. New York: Ticknor & Fields. 1985. 304 pp. $16.95. Luther Nedeed, great-great-grandson of the founder of Linden Hills, has imprisoned his wife and her (he believes) bastard son in their basement, feeding them dry cereal and powdered milk and asking them to ``think, suffer and repent.'' It will be a ``cold day in hell,'' he thinks, before a woman can threaten to destroy what took the Nedeed men 150 years to build: a black, upper-middle-class community. But in his anger, Luther fails to realize that it is in fact the coldest day of the year.

On this cold day, two former schoolmates slap hands in greeting, blackness, and friendship. Willie, so dark that ``he'd just have to turn white,'' has decided there is a limit on how black a man should be. His friend Lester, a fellow street poet with skin ``the creamy tone of milk,'' memorizes poems by his role model, the slave poet Jupiter Hammon. ``The written word dulls the mind,'' Lester believes, and what is ``mostly written by white men is positively poisonous.''

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With these two characters, Naylor creates perhaps the best black male protagonists of recent fiction. Their relationship is set within a community of storefront churches, delicatessens that sell marijuana and take numbers, and a high school that many public school graduates will remember with fondness and bruises.

Linden Hills is the sort of community black writers often leave behind or overlook. The friendship of Willie and Lester, in their discovery of sexual rites and fights with classmates over skin color and other things, is typical and touching. Even more so is that the boys discover a love of poetry, and their friendship grows as they realize that poetry is, like wrapping presents, a suspect kind of emotion and that, within the community, a male poet must be prepared to prove his masculinity.

Willie and Lester will never become Michael Harper or Langston Hughes, but they may use the aesthetic, moral, and intellectual sensibilities of Whitman or Eliot to understand the tragic and ironic in their lives. They move through the community, doing odd jobs to earn money for Christmas presents.

Naylor's other characters, created with a carefully chosen word, sentence, or quotation from a poem, are equally memorable. Willie's sister, Roxanne, is ``a good meal away from being fat'' and believes ``you can't get a good husband with a Harlem zip code.'' Her concession to blackness is enrolling in a black history course and wearing an Afro for six months. There are mutterings from the boys about Malcolm X turning over in his grave.

Other Linden Hills residents include Maxwell Smyth, who ``relished the feeling of power and control as his blackness momentarily diminished'' when some stupid and -- of course -- bigoted secretary spelled his name with an ``i''; and Dr. Braithwaite, a Nobel Prize nominee and author of a history of Linden Hills.

Naylor's novel is a journey through households, weddings, funerals, and parties of the black middle class, where things are often the opposite of what they seem and the community is often divided against itself. When the boys encounter Dr. Braithwaite, it is his professional rationale as well as their understanding of poetry that provides them with an explanation of their inability to influence events.

While passing Nedeed's house, Willie and Lester hear what sounds like a woman moaning. They investigate and Nedeed unlocks the basement door just as his wife -- her son now dead -- struggles to climb the stairs. The novel's resolution is therefore both gothic and literary; symbolic as well as dramatic.

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In ``Linden Hills,'' there are no cheap shots at middle-class black life; this is not Franklin Frazier's ``Black Bourgeoisie'' but rather the darker side of the ``Bill Cosby Show.'' Naylor's book is a poignant and moving look at men and women together and in conflict, and she uses both literary symbol and historical example to achieve this end.

Sam Cornish teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.

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