The unexpected discovery in 2012 of a completed manuscript of Claude McKay's final novel was hailed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as 'a major event which dramatically expands the canon of novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers'. Building on the already extraordinary legacy of McKay's life and work, this colourful, dramatic novel centres on the effort by Harlem intelligentsia to organize support for the liberation of Mussolini-occupied Ethiopia, a crucial but largely forgotten event in American history. At once a penetrating satire of political machinations in Depression-era Harlem and a far-reaching story of global intrigue and romance, Amiable with Big Teeth plunges into the concerns, anxieties, hopes and dreams of African-Americans at a moment of crisis for the soul of Harlem.
"The youngest of 11 children in a Jamaican farming family, McKay (1889-1948) was a published poet as a teenager. After he made his way to New York, he became part of the Harlem Renaissance, even as he wrote his first three novels in France (Home to Harlem, 1928), Spain and Morocco (Banjo, 1929), and Tangier (Banana Bottom, 1933). Back in New York, he eked out a living working for the Federal Writers' Project, along with Dorothy West, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, while writing articles and nonfiction books, including Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), the last title published before his death. In 2009, Jean-Christophe Cloutier, a doctoral candidate and intern at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, came across a 300-page manuscript that he and his dissertation adviser Brent Hayes Edwards eventually authenticated as a heretofore unknown work by McKay: Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. The two scholars report their findings in their fascinating introduction to the first edition of McKay's rescued fourth novel, reporting that McKay was so determined to complete the book quickly that he left the distractions of New York City for a farmhouse in Maine as soon as he received an advance from his publisher, E. P. Dutton. But when he submitted the manuscript in July 1941, Dutton declined to publish it, and, with that, the paper trail came to an end, leaving unsolved the mystery of what happened to the manuscript during the difficult last years of McKay's life, as he struggled with financial woes and illness. The novel's remarkable discovery and prominent publication is a propitious event of tremendous historical and literary significance. McKay's zealous political satire begins on a Sunday afternoon in 1934 as people fill Seventh Avenue in Harlem, galvanized to action by Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. The elite has created competing charitable organizations to raise funds for the besieged, poorly armed African nation, including Hands to Ethiopia, the brain child of Pablo Peixota, who made his fortune in the notorious numbers game. He is proud to be hosting a young Ethiopian prince and envoy, Lij Tekla Alamaya, who catches the eager eye of Pablo's mischievous stepdaughter, Seraphine. But the church event Pablo has orchestrated is hijacked by the flamboyant Professor Koazhy, the controversial leader of a secretive group known as the Senegambians. Worse yet are Pablo's troubles with the White Friends of Ethiopia and the enigmatic, coldly manipulative Maxim Tasan, a rabid recruiter for the Communist party, which has its own warring factions.McKay devotes a nearly stultifying number of pages to the battle between the Trotskyites and Stalinists, a hot issue then even as fascism and Nazism gathered strength overseas. Though McKay introduces intriguing characters and brings readers into enticing situations dinner parties, clandestine meetings, and nightclub parties and confrontations, the dialogue descends into tedious diatribes. Still, this overly talky, often stilted mix of political critique and low-flame potboiler is smart, daring, and brimming with arresting insights. Such as Alamaya's outsider perspective on American racism, and Seraphine's wish: I want to feel free to live my life like any American girl. McKay choreographs hoaxes, betrayals, showdowns, and a highly questionable sexual encounter while tackling thorny questions about African Americans' sense of identity and heritage, interracial alliances and marriages, social class, and the impact on Harlem by global politics. The novel's provocative subtitle is alluded to in a thunderous sermon by the Reverend Zebulon Trawl, in which he beseeches God: show me the way to defeat the machinations of the strong white ones against thy poor black sheep. Many readers will relate to Pablo's response to the political turmoil dividing his community and the world at-large: he reasoned that the times were fantastic in a way that was beyond his imagination. Principles had become meaningless. Why was Amiable with Big Teeth rejected? Perhaps Dutton didn't want to invest in its much-needed revision, or McKay wasn't willing or able to do the necessary rewrites. Dutton may also have passed on it because of the escalating war in Europe. McKay's vehement criticism of Stalin and his supporters would not have played well as the U.S. looked to the Soviet Union as an ally against Germany. Whatever the reason, now that the novel is finally, even miraculously, available, McKay will be more widely recognized as, to quote Cloutier and Edwards, one of the most important literary and political writers of the interwar period. --Seaman, Donna Copyright 2017 Booklist"
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Publisher's Weekly Review:
"Unpublished in the author's lifetime, this recently unearthed work by Harlem Renaissance writer McKay (1889-1948) is both a brilliant social novel and a historical document shedding light on two oft-overlooked episodes from the history of America's African-American community: the campaign to aid Ethiopia after the invasion by Fascist Italy, and the debate among the black intelligentsia over Communism. It is the 1930s and Harlem is abuzz with festivity as the Hands to Ethiopia committee receives an envoy, Lij Tekla Alamaya. But controversy soon engulfs the neighborhood, as Soviet agent Maxim Tasan infiltrates the cause and plans to turn its various constituents against one another. These include the eccentric and flamboyant Professor Koazhy; the committee's leftist secretary, Newton Castle; and the committee's chairman, Pablo Peixota, who winds up between a rock and a hard place once his daughter, Seraphine, falls in love with Alamaya. But is Alamaya an impostor? And will the committee's good intentions fall victim to anti-Communist hysteria? As witch hunts mount, questions of black identity come to drive this fiercely political novel, which doesn't shy away from examining the hypocrisy of Harlem's moral leaders, nor from frank discussion of assimilation and the quandary of the socialist reformer in the era of Stalin. The novel suffers from some repetition-probably reflecting that McKay was unable to revise it-but remains a complex, extraordinarily even-handed portrait of American blackness in a time of war. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved."