Review: Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney

No matter how far you go, you can’t outrun yourself, as Jed Goodfinch discovers in Darryl Pinckney’s new novel, Black Deutschland. It’s the 80s, and Jed – gay, black, and newly sober - moves from his hometown of Chicago to West Berlin, the land of second chances that, like his favorite dive bar, became his “time off, my skip through the looking glass, the boys’ club where in my head I scored all night.”

But Jed can’t escape his history, the pervasive racism that dogged his family of high achieving social activists. When he first arrives in West Berlin he lives with his cousin Cello, a former piano prodigy who married a white German business owner, and who “did not believe in new beginnings as a rule. People were who they were.”  

His relationship with Cello – both current and past – becomes a foundational line for the novel as we move back and forth between present to past, West Berlin and Chicago. And while the layers and digressions into the lives of secondary characters as well as the minute of life in West Berlin are beautifully written, it’s difficult to find the novel’s central focus. Rather than one central plot the novel instead replicates the chaos of Jed’s life: his unsteady living situations; his fleeting love affairs; his long, wandering walks through the city.

For anyone who’s ever attempted to build a life abroad, you known it’s full of starts and stops. It’s slow to begin, small moments take on great meaning, and you have lots and lots of time alone. It’s natural, then, to ruminate on where you came from, and reflect on how the past influences the present. Black Deutschland replicates this same path in remarkable fashion, and while it’s not linear or clear at times, Jed’s journey is an honest, authentic tale of reinvention.