On a chilly spring night, Stanley Crouch is bobbing around like a heavyweight champion warming up for a fight. “I hope we see some blood,” he says, gleefully shifting his stocky frame. “I’m going to get pilloried!” Crouch, the essayist, jazz critic, and all-around bad boy of the black intelligentsia, has gotten into his share of fistfights – most notably a bloody brawl with a fellow writer that got him fired from The Village Voice back in 1989. But tonight it’s words that Crouch will wield as he goes out to battle – in a New York 1 debate on New York City police violence.
His opponent this evening is Peter Noel, the West Indian-born reporter who covers black politics for the Voice. Declining to jump on the anti-police bandwagon, Crouch tries to steer the conversation to black-on-black crime. “The issue is blue-on-black crime!” retorts Noel, growing heated. Noel accuses Crouch of being a Giuliani apologist and a front man for police-force bigots. “I know you voted for Rudy,” Noel shouts. “That’s the dirty little secret among boozhie black intellectuals like you.” “That is just a bunch of bunk!” Crouch retorts. “The greatest threat to black life and limb is not the police; it’s criminals in our community, and you, Peter Noel, know it.”
It’s at moments like these that Crouch is happiest, jamming his finger in the electrical current of controversy. When the cameras flick off, he visibly deflates. He and Noel shake hands and trundle off to dinner at the nearby Soul Cafe. “That’s just business,” Crouch says, giggling, when asked about the pitched back-and-forth. “People never know what I’m gonna say, but they know I’m not gonna be bullshitted.”
Now 54 and, by his reckoning, “still a hottie, but now just intellectually,” Stanley Crouch is preparing to throw down his heftiest gauntlet yet: a 500-page novel called Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome (Pantheon Books). It is Crouch’s first novel, years in the making, and its debut this week has been as eagerly anticipated by his many critics as by his friends. “There are a lot of people lying in wait for this novel,” warns the MacArthur-winning writer Ishmael Reed. “He’s made a lot of enemies.”
Set in modern-day New York City, the book details the tortured relationship between Carla, a blues-singing blonde in her forties, and Maxwell, her black saxophonist boyfriend. Crouch boldly wrote it from the point of view of the white woman. The book already took a beating in Sunday’s Times. In a review headlined all that jive, James Baldwin biographer James Campbell sniped that most “shocking in ‘a novel about blues and swing’ is the author’s overall insensitivity to language.” Crouch blithely dismisses the review as “a political hit job designed to keep me in my place.”
In his own modest estimation, the novel is a masterpiece. “If Mann or Joyce were alive, they would call me up to talk about this book,” Crouch says. “They’d understand what I’m shooting for.” Crouch’s elephantine ego can certainly withstand the blows: After all, for almost 30 years, he has charted his own contrarian course on politics, culture, and literature, and especially race, always giving as good as he gets. His favorite targets are other influential African-Americans, whom he has skewered with famously acerbic epithets. He called Spike Lee “a nappy-headed Napoleon,” compared the Nobel laureate novelist Toni Morrison to P. T. Barnum, and labeled Malcolm X “the Elvis Presley of race politics.”
It’s no surprise, then, that at a SoHo party last month for the Black Writers’ Conference, many of Crouch’s fellow guests gave him the cold shoulder. “He just wants to shock,” spit out the novelist Terry McMillan. “The man is just an awful writer,” sneered Quincy Troupe, professor of literature at the University of California at San Diego and a close friend before Crouch savaged him in a book review. Ishmael Reed dismissed Crouch as “a henchman for the Establishment.”
Of course, some in the Establishment beg to differ. “Stanley is a very feeling and civilized man who has his mind made up on a great many important questions about which a decent man ought to have made up his mind,” says the usually taciturn Saul Bellow. “The fact that he’s an American is much more relevant than the fact that he’s a Negro.”
Being an American is a matter of no small importance to Crouch, whose sentimental patriotism is based on the remarkable trajectory of his own life. Born in South Central Los Angeles to a washerwoman mother and a drug-addicted father, he became an actor in his teens, and his work with the Watts Repertory Theater became his ticket out of the ghetto. Passionate about jazz, he moved to New York in 1975 “to find some culture” and soon after was hired as the Village Voice jazz critic. His elegant pieces from that period formed the basis for his acclaimed first book, Notes of a Hanging Judge. Along the way, he has published three books of essays, written and directed ten plays, and writes a twice-weekly column for the Daily News.
By day, Crouch works out of the West Village brownstone he shares with his wife, the sculptor Gloria Nixon. At night, he hangs out at West Village jazz clubs or holds court at lit-world soirées where his is often the only black face in the room. Droll and melodramatic, he has become a sought-after party guest, mopping the sweat from his big bald head as he buzzes from corner to corner, loudly opining on a multitude of topics while good-naturedly flirting with every woman in the room.
Before he was married in 1995, Crouch was something of a ladies’ man, linked to a long list of women including producer Lynda Obst. Though he denies rumors that his book is autobiographical, Crouch describes Carla, its prime protagonist, as “my ideal woman … She doesn’t whine.” He says that he anticipated a few raised eyebrows when he decided to adopt the voice of a white woman but insists it wasn’t much of a stretch. “I just followed my intuition,” he says. A hopeful romantic who gracefully suffers the slings of her lover’s black friends, Clara is, in Crouch’s opinion, “the best kind of American woman, a pioneer who refuses to give up.”
Rich in passion but somewhat lacking in plot, his first novel is a decidedly mixed effort. But Crouch’s friend and fellow writer Lee Siegel argues that it should be judged not simply as fiction but also as “a polemic … a way for Stanley to put into fictional form the obsessions that you see in his essays.”
Crouch predicts that criticism of his book will be more political than literary. “Some of us are never supposed to speak about our love for America,” he says, before launching into another attack on James Campbell, “the European guy” who reviewed his book for the Times. “He’s condescending up to me. He doesn’t know enough about American art, history, or culture to even begin discussing a book this complex.” For Crouch, as always, the fight is half the fun.