Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2006 | Reviews

Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson

By Kathryn Howe
Elbow Room Cover

An utterly original and culturally keen analysis of relationships both within and between races, this collection of short stories by a longtime Iowa Writers' Workshop professor is not new. Elbow Room captured the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, distinguishing its author, James Alan McPherson, as the first African American to collect the coveted award for a work of fiction.

But, the universal themes among the pages resonate as much today as they did three decades ago. McPherson's masterful stories explore the stereotypes, judgments, and injustices that occur in a country with a history of racism. As much social commentary as entertainment, the tales present the plights of ordinary men and women—black and white—as their lives intermingle in sad and humorous ways.

In "A Sense of Story," stereotypes swirl around the murder trial of Robert Charles. Here, McPherson's familiarity with courtroom drama (he's a Harvard law graduate, too) is on display as he describes prosecution and defense attorneys who portray bigoted images of the accused. Charles is either a disgruntled employee who resents the power and success of his white boss or an illiterate man groomed for violence in the South. The result is a thought-provoking examination of the problematic outcomes in a justice system controlled by deeply flawed people.

Indeed, it's the flawed, misguided, unruly, and self-righteous nature of the characters that make the book memorable. A black man defends his love for country music; a stubborn barber's refusal to change costs him his place in the community; a grocer faces a moral dilemma in a poor neighborhood where he does business; a black woman grapples with the emotions and politics of marrying a white man. The most gratifying aspect of Elbow Room is its honesty. These characters are real, their stories too complex and unexpected to be anything but the truth.

In the end, McPherson suggests that we might enjoy a better world if we'd just make a little "elbow room" for one another.