Every Third House
Donald Freed’s Every Third House is an eloquence transcending gender, race and time. Over the course of eighty-three chapters Freed fragments two decades in the lives of Black Panther leader Leon Hurley Howard, Vivian Battle and an American psyche still shaped by the political and social upheaval of the second half of the 20th Century.
The fragments comprise court transcripts, prison letters, FBI memos and a third person narrative that takes place in the two years subsequent to Howard’s release from prison in May of 1990. The court transcripts are presented vividly in the dramatic manner of Freed’s Inquest, his play on the Rosenberg H-bomb trial. The prison letters allow Freed to become the first person voice of the white poet, Vivian Battle and also that of black revolutionary, Howard (aka "Masai"). The FBI memos have the timeless imprint of state oppression and Orwellian "double speak." Hoover had instigated a program called Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program) to battle against the Black Panther party. What he famously said of the party, that it was "the greatest threat to internal security of the country", might as pointedly been said of himself. The Panthers were a Marxist revolutionary organization, but "black power" was only one element of its complex character:
At the height of their influence the Panthers' newsletters reached hundreds of thousands in urban centers across the country. They were involved in a class struggle that sought to embrace all of America’s disenfranchised poor. Dilbert "Big Man" Howard was the editor of The Black Panther, the official organ of the party. Something of his size, Newton’s soul and Seale’s passion has found its way into the composite fiction of Freed’s Masai—Leon Hurley Howard.
An America that, into the 1950’s, could lynch black men with impunity would not tolerate black men with guns. Thirty of the Panthers were arrested in Sacramento when they arrived to protest legislation that was aimed at disarming them. Several of the Panthers were later shot to death during police raids of questionable legality. Bobby Hutton’s house was set aflame. He was gunned down by the Oakland Police during his attempt to escape the fire. He was seventeen. Fred Hampton was responsible for free breakfast programs across Chicago’s west side and the revolutionary act of establishing free medical care for the city’s poor:
Police broke into Hampton’s apartment while he slept, and shot him twice in the head. He was twenty-one. It is for provocations such as these that the organization was originally deemed The Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Freed ran with the Panthers and knows of what he speaks. Huey Newton was best man at his wedding. Hoover’s Cointelpro used agent provocateurs, espionage, disinformation and psychological warfare to disrupt party advances. The FBI sought Freed’s silence and possible murder by distributing flyers in San Francisco suggesting that he was an undercover cop, ie.: "Donald Freed is a Pig." Freed survived and remains one of America’s premier playwrights. It is a great pleasure to report him, as well, to be among America’s finest novelists.
The main characters espouse Sartre in their declarations of freedom but they remain rooted in a Faulknerian past: "a past that is not even past." Despite its populist pretense, America has long been locked in a rigor of class, power and wealth. Each is taken for granted among those who inherit and possess them. These same will use the lower classes as cannon fodder at the least threat to their own status quo. Freed’s metaphor for this rigor is the New Haven "Green." Masai had been convicted in an alleged conspiracy to kidnap Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. The courthouse in which he was tried sat squarely on the Green. In Freed’s hands an earthbound metaphor takes metaphysical flight:
There are moments of hallucinogenic intensity when each is caught in a divide that howls back through the centuries preceding their humanity: "The monster’s eyes rolled red and up, his whole great frame began to tremble and heave like a beast trapped on the fault line of an earthquake." When the Pleistocene is discovered to be only yesterday, we have, as Freed avers, been called human beings too soon.
Freed is a revolutionary and a classicist. It’s a volatile and beguiling admixture. He is as apt to cite a passage from the Orestia of Aeschylus as he is to contemplate Das Kapital. Gilbert Murray’s translation of Euripides’ Electra is a running theme throughout the text. In one absorbing construction the murder of Clytmenestra plays off against the dream flight of Masai as hunted slave. Few moments in literature are as sublimely horrific as Orestes' recognition of his mother’s expiring humanity: "... she opened her bosom bare, she bent her knees to the earth, the knees that bent in my birth and I... Oh, her hair, her hair..." There is also a stunning moment, drawn from the prelude to another "literary" murder. Desdemona’s "Willow Song" evokes a universal sympathy worthy of the Verdi aria that succeeded the Shakespeare and the Avatamsaka Sutra that had, by a millennium and a half, preceded it:
We are each in that "self-same cottage"—each in Freed’s Every Third House. From the floorboards to the rafters, this house is a subversion and every inch a masterpiece. In an era when the government desires access to our library cards, Penmarin must be applauded for bringing the work to its press. Freed’s dream prose is the history from which those of us that drew breath in the 20th century must exhale it in the shock and the awe of the 21st:
The "shit storm" and revolution that the novel prognosticates may well, in fact, arrive. American penal systems have been a gulag for young black men long before such a charge was levied during the present contretemps between the Tigris and Euphrates. It is clear, as well, that a black population too poor to evacuate the inundations companioning a Category 5 hurricane might as well be incarcerated for all the freedom their poverty affords. But the revolution with which we are left to contend is one of the heart. Early in the book we find a lovely passage presaging the novel’s conclusion:
In the end Vivian Battle lays down her arms and Masai, like Dr. King before him, has been to the mountain top but will not cross to that other shore. These are artistic inversions of the highest order. Vivian’s injunction to: "Please, God, let me do no harm... at the least and at the last let me do no harm." is, as well, of the highest moral order and is one in which the world stands desperately in need. Astonishing! Freed’s achievement is of a resolute literary authority and not to be missed.