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An Ear for African-American, Urban Voices

IF echoes from William Faulkner's ``The Sound and the Fury'' reverberate in John Edgar Wideman's newest novel, ``Philadelphia Fire,'' this comes as no surprise to Wideman. ``We're drawing from the same pool. Faulkner was listening to black sermons and black [gospel and blues] music, he was privy to that,'' says Mr. Wideman in an interview between promotion stops in New York. The rhythms of the King James Bible in Faulkner's characters are still there to be heard in contemporary African-American voices, he says. And it is these voices, especially from America's ghetto streets - the Pittsburgh streets where this acclaimed writer, Rhodes scholar, and professor grew up, and the Philadelphia streets where he once lived while attending the University of Pennsylvania - that he especially sought to communicate.

If the voices work at all, they ``work as a meditation on a subject,'' he says. They force one to hear the pain, guilt, rage, and despair, the fate of so many urban blacks, he says. Wideman is no stranger to such sounds. His brother Robbie got involved with drugs and was part of a trio that killed a man in Pittsburgh. His son Jake, at age 16, inexplicably stabbed a friend while on a camping trip. Both are in prison.

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``I did not intend the book as an expos'e,'' Wideman says. ``There is no new information in this book.'' There is no attempt at any conventional resolution of this tragedy.

``When you get right down to it, this [the Philadelphia fire] is an event that got a lot of press coverage, but then disappeared from the public consciousness,'' he says.

He did intend to restore memory, both individual and collective. And to teach a lesson. ``Fiction allows for restoration, instruction,'' he says. ``It can demand that people imagine it, reimagine it, connect themselves on a personal level to it.'' If a writer does his job, ``at least no one will change the channel,'' he says.

What happened in Philadelphia may have been inevitable. Tragic events in his own life may have been inevitable as well, he suggests. But we should not add to the despair of these people and what this conflagration represents by forgetting about it, he says.

For readers of ``Philadelphia Fire,'' there is little likelihood of memory loss. Cudjoe, the closest thing to a narrator, is at times a stand-in for the author. A black man married to a white woman with a son in prison, Cudjoe bears the full brunt of Wideman's struggle. ``I try to explode the thing in his face,'' the author says. Readers, as they might say in the military, are collateral damage from that explosion.

The best way to teach is to ``attempt to discover the right questions,'' Wideman says. When that happens, the reader will know ``there are no answers to them.'' The most important question he asks is: ``What will happen to the children?''

Both society and individuals see their own reflection in the way children think and live. ``If we see chaos in these young kids, that's a fact about them. But it's a fact about the world we made for them,'' he says. If we are going to be honest about urban youth gangs, we have to admit that ``we don't have answers for these kids; we just have more power than they do,'' he says.

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``One thing I tried to show ... there is a kind of irrepressible energy that comes with new life,'' he says. ``We are faced with what we are going to do with it.''

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