Reckless Eyeballing by Ishmael Reed

I have been reading many short stories for my multicultural literature class, so it was nice to delve into a full-length novel. Reckless Eyeballing is a 148 page sort-of fiction about a playwright and his troubles with racism, anti-semitism, feminism, misogyny, and much, much more. It only took me two sittings to finish, and was a relatively easy read on the surface.

Reckless Eyeballing

Reckless Eyeballing is told primarily through Ian Ball’s perspective — a Creole playwright who is trying to get his play, also entitled “Reckless Eyeballing,” into a popular theatre. The story is about his encounters with racists and feminists who want to hinder or change his play to suit their needs. Other, more minor characters include Tremonisha Smarts — a feminist playwright, Jim Minsk — a Jewish director, and Lawrence O’Reedy — a racist detective.

While Reed seems to poke equal amounts of fun at everyone and their faults, it seems to me that feminists get the short end of the stick. While there is one redeemable feminist, she is only really that way in the very end of the novel, and basically turns out not to be a feminist at all. In one of the most humorous parts of the novel, the “Flower Phantom,” a man in a beret, trench coat, and mask goes around New York City shaving off prominent feminists hair and leaving them with a Chrysanthemum. The black men of NYC secretly rejoice and praise this man, as the feminists seem to run everything in the city, and have been putting men on the “sex-list” for many years, affecting who is published, praised, paraded around town for their woman-friendly attitudes. Ian Ball hopes to get taken off the sex-list with his play, “Reckless Eyeballing,” which is about a black man who was lynched for looking at a white woman for too long. 20 years after the fact, the woman in question wishes to take the dead man’s skeleton to court in order to sentence him to death. Outrage and hilarity ensue.

This story is definitely easy to read if you take it at face value; it’s short, seems pretty straight forward, and for the most part has simple characters that are easy to identify and label. However, if you treat this as a true Ishmael Reed book, you could read it dozens of times and still come out with something new each time. While I did not love the book, I did enjoy the amazing amounts of layering that Reed accomplishes. By subtly hinting at being a pseudo-fictional tale, there are many popular references to jazz musicians, Disney characters, and an allusion that one of the main characters is basically a stand-in for Alice Walker, and the character’s script-turned-play mirrors Walker’s book-turned-film, The Color Purple.

To truly understand the multilayered intertextual themes, the reader will have to have a basic understanding of a lot of prominent black literature and culture both in and out of the USA. However, before taking the multicultural literature class, I can say that I did not know much about that scene, and I could still enjoy the basic premise and humor of the extremely satirical novel from Ishmael Reed. If you think of the novel as light reading with dark undertones, it makes for a satisfying, humorous, quick read. If you prefer to look deeper into the text, you will also be satisfied — there is layer upon layer of cultural and literary references to feast upon.

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