Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone

James Baldwin

It has been quite a long time since I read any James Baldwin, which suddenly seems like a pretty serious oversight. This may not be one of his best novels, but I liked it more than Mario Puzo did in his review for The New York Times when the book was published in 1968.

I had no problem with the first-person singular being used in a “novel of social protest,” but there were some parts of the story that could have been more developed; though at nearly 500 pages, I’m not sure how much more epic it could get. First of all the protagonist narrator has the awesome name of Leo Proudhammer. Most of the story is a series of flashbacks after he suffers a near-fatal heart attack with him reflecting on his childhood in Harlem along his difficult journey to acting stardom.

The story hinges around Leo’s two major loves: one a white woman and the other a black man. The focus definitely rests on Barbara from Kentucky, though he did also meet her at a much younger age and their connection gives light to societal response to interracial relationships at the end of WWII. But Christopher is younger, yet for some reason there is less about societal response to gay relationships around the 1950s/1960s. There’s a recurring theme of people needing to stay in their place, and Leo manages to defy this in both his relationships.

The development of Leo’s acting career is one of the warmest parts of the book, especially the section where he relates his big break in an experimental play, even though at the time he is also struggling to maintain contact with his family. I do agree with Puzo that after this, interesting events are often tossed in over a few sentences in a way that lacks impact. But overall, there’s still a powerful sense of intimacy and a keen perception that makes up for such weaknesses.

Everyone wishes to be loved, but, in the event, nearly no one can bear it. Everyone desires love but also finds it impossible to believe that he deserves it…. one does many things, turns the key in the lock over and over again, hoping to be locked out.