(I wish I’d enjoyed this review more and that I’d known about the use of the word “Coma” more intimately, the title its namesake ever intended.)
A wealthy, handsome, mature African-American figure returns home from a stint in New York to fetch a coffee. He looks, according to the white woman selling it, like a doctor or social worker (Celia Billingsley). The psychiatrist claims the star has a mysterious condition, an obscure disability that has brought him to a remote house in the woods.
The narrator of the novel that takes place there is a young black physician who has been sleeping in the house and on the lawn. One day he emerges from the bedroom to find this comatose man no longer listening to the heart murmurs or even making the noises, for that matter, that any old doctor would make upon leaving the room and summoning help. There is no explanation, of course. The narrator calls the doctor “Big Dick” — he’s known him only by that name since he was a child — and the story doesn’t stop there.
It turns out that the surgeon comes back to the house to clear out the patient from the dining room, because, as he puts it, the man is “the hardest to digest” in the whole house. From then on, the left ear provides the greatest hearing through which the patient can communicate. His name is Baleka, “a term I have used for years in conversations with my best friends. They would say, ‘How’s that boy?’ And I would say, ‘It’s Baleka,’ ” the novel writes, without explanation. When asked to suggest a comic title for the book, the writer responds, “Burro.”
We learn in the end that the patient’s condition is indeed mysterious. The former patient has made a transformation that involves physical immortality as well as inner one. The narrator does all he can to keep the whole thing from becoming too bogged down in crazy. But his wife, the chef, finds out about the patient’s malady the way the reader does.
The novelist kept to the sociological theories of the era, sometimes referring to the Great Depression. The title is taken from the plight of the young African-American who can’t make enough money to buy his beloved sister a certain new belt buckle at the store — she is caught up in the cyclical Great Depression of times past, a “level of blackness that has nothing to do with Big Dick Baleka.”
The next chapter is called “Who Cares?” and it is within this sentence that I, a lapsed reader of historical fiction, flashed back to World War II as a “contemporary” of this dream scenario. The United States was fighting Nazi Germany on the Pacific Islands in a version of the Depression that had nothing to do with either Big Dick Baleka or “Burro.” And it was very funny.
I have no idea why Mr. Francis chooses to make his protagonist the medical doctor, for whom some of the story’s most fascinating moments occur, in big city offices and consulting rooms. And I would love to have seen what he’d have done with the narrator.
Perhaps he feared that such a character would not resonate with those who are not specialists in their own field. (It may be a surprise, to see me pouncing on a novel about a black doctor and a white publisher.)
But I do know that the authorship of the title is a literal change of pace. The narrator could have been the medical expert with the errant bandage around his head.