Who is Cliff? He tells us in the preface that he is a middle-aged black American, a husband and father, an editor, and, “in my heart,” a writer. He writes about the art he loves, literature, film, painting, and jazz, with an affinity for the latter. (Regarding the first, he has written a novel, Signifying Nothing. And he has a stated “affection” for the third; that’s a photo of his work on the cover.) “It is jazz that helped me make sense of my cultural identity and served as one safe place in the world from which to contemplate the rest…it embodied an element central to Americanness: improvisation, or making a new way to achieve an end.” The book is divided into five sections, mostly one per art form, though in many of his essays he gets his favorite things to talk to each other, in an open-minded, open-hearted dialogue.
I never read essay collections in order. I dip in and out, and started in on Love for Sale toward its bloggier end, where I learned, for example, that two of Cliff’s best-loved movies are Matewan and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He is similarly broad-minded throughout. I don’t know much about jazz, but he brings his erudition to bear on an excellent essay about a movie I have seen, Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961). The structure of this piece is typically “Cliff-ian.” He begins with “four facts [that] determine the kind of escapism I often seek,” which leads to his discovery of this particular film in a video store in Brooklyn, where he lives. It proves a letdown, with Louis Armstrong shoe-horned into the story to add the arc of Paul Newman’s rise as a jazz musician “some sort of legitimacy.” But it’s not a total loss; Cliff can be counted on to find the bits of gold in the bottom of the pan. It “at least attempts, however naively, to say some positive things, and in that way it as representative as anything else of the tragic, glorious period of the 1960s.”A subsequent discussion of 70s blaxploitation is as even-handed and enlightening, and if you’re looking for fresh insight into Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), black characterizations in the films of John Sayles (Passion Fish), Ali, and Alexander Payne, look here.
He is instructive, rather than cruel, in critiquing what falls short. A wonderful essay on Tom Wolfe concludes that the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities and other books considered at or near the top of the cultural pinnacle “could turn out better, more fully realized novels if he tried hard enough, if he just kept up the chase.” Zadie Smith is also taken to task, gently, for her “rich, funny, moving, satisfying” On Beauty, which for all that doesn’t quite click, for reasons that Cliff elucidates. The easy dismissal is not his style.
As it happens I attended Cliff’s 50th birthday party on Saturday night. It’s tempting to look at Love for Sale as a summing-up, a sharing of wisdom and experience as he settles into middle age. But I suspect Cliff’s past will continue to inform his thinking. And I know he won’t settle for anything as he continues to explore what moves and fascinates him. I look forward to further voyages, Cliff–and readers who didn’t know you at all before this terrific book will, too.