Naming the New World by Calvin Baker

By Lise Funderburg

The New York Times
March 23, 1997

The African-American experience is passed through history, batonlike, in Calvin Baker’s slender first novel. As he contemplates the African diaspora through several generations of one family, Mr. Baker sketches a gaunt yet sprawling narrative that manages to tumble through a vast array of topics: slavery, Emancipation, an attempted return to the motherland, the Vietnam War, the crack epidemic, the evils of suburbanization, even capital punishment. The vague bloodlines connecting Mr. Baker’s characters serve primarily as a device to move the novel through time, and since their actual inheritance is unspecified, ancestry becomes a generic notion — we are all, apparently, meant to be seen as its beneficiaries and victims. When Mr. Baker spends time with a character (hard to do in 118 wide-margined pages), his writing can be taut and evocative. Yet his descriptive prose occasionally suffers from a certain awkwardness, as in this character’s account of his ill-fated brother: ”While he played in this tainted fairy tale and reaped the warnings of the adults around us, I sidestepped his pitfalls.” Too lean, the novel careers through time and experience, leaving little room for readers to settle into some otherwise promising material.