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Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin

This time, it's not a novel that I'm reviewing, but a short story. This story actually comes from a whole book of short stories that I'll be reviewing. The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn was a book required for an Introduction to Short Fiction class that I took at Rutgers University in the Fall 2007 semester. I loved the class and I loved the book even more - so much so that I kept it. This 926 page tome contains 63 short stories as well as a sort of "conversation with the author" after each story and an explanation in the back of the book of the different aspects of short stories (ex. plot, characterization, point of view). I don't recall what I paid for this book, but it was well worth the price. Here's the cover art:

The story I'm focusing on this time is Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin. (For those of you interested, that's the esteemed Mr. Baldwin in the lower left hand corner of the book cover.) As short stories go, Sonny's Blues is really rather long, stretching from pages 27-52, however, it's well worth the read.

The story chronicles the unnamed speaker's struggles with his brother Sonny. Sonny is unable to settle down in life it seems and for awhile has been too much a free spirit for the speaker's liking. Since a rift has grown between the two brothers over the years, the speaker attempts a reconciliation by meeting with his brother Sonny. It is only then does he realize Sonny's true problems. Sonny is an artist - more specifically a musician - who believes that you need to suffer to create good art.

The story is full of dark imagery and musical reference, however it is also full of wonderful quotes that could easily fill up several LJ pages. While it does involve some dark themes (and at one point a tale related about a gory death), it is, on the whole, an excellent read.

Favorite quote: "I said: 'But there's no way not to suffer - is there Sonny?'
' I believe not,' he said and smiled, 'but that's never stopped anyone from trying.' He looked at me. 'Has it?' I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence - so long! - when he had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the window. 'No, there's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem - well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you're suffering for it. You know?' I said nothing. 'Well you know,' he said, impatiently, 'why do people suffer? Maybe it's better to do something to give it a reason, any reason.'
'But we just agreed,' I said, 'that there's no way not to suffer. Isn't it better, then, just to - take it?'
'But nobody just takes it,' Sonny cried, 'thta's what I'm telling you! Everybody tries not to. You're just hung up on the way some people try - it's not your way!'"

Final score: Out of five stars, this story receives five stars. The story is engaging and memorable, full of excellent imagery and quotes that stay with you long beyond the story as a whole.