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  • Written by Heather Neff
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  • Written by Heather Neff
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Haarlem

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A Novel

Written by Heather NeffAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Heather Neff

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: March 10, 2010
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-307-52955-8
Published by : Broadway Books Crown Trade Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt
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Synopsis

“The only thing that’ll last forever is my Thirst . . . .”

So says Abel Crofton as he explores the streets and canals of Amsterdam. A New York tunnel worker who’s struggling to stay sober after years of alcoholism, Abel is searching for the mother he’s never known. Despite having few clues as to her whereabouts, he soon finds a bureaucratic trail that takes him to Haarlem, the Dutch town from which the famed African-American neighborhood takes its name.

As Abel ventures into more new territory, he also takes on his identity as a Black man, his rough childhood in Harlem, New York, his relationship to his bitter father, and his battle with addiction. The questions around his life only get more complicated after he meets a coldly direct waitress and a ragged jazz musician, both also bearing major scars from their pasts. The road leads to Haarlem for them as well.

Welcome to Abel’s search for salvation in another tight page turner from Heather Neff.

Excerpt

One

CRASH LANDING

If she'd loved me, she wouldn't have named me Abel."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that nobody in their right mind needs to be named after a sheep boy."

"I kinda like it. Reminds me of Honest Abe."

"Naw, man. That comes from Abraham. Abel is that nobody with nothing to think about except cutting up dumb animals to please that invisible white man in the sky. 'Please, Mister Lord--please accept my humble offering.' Then crack! He gets beat down by his own brother. Jeesus. I might as well be named Clark Kent. Or Moby-Dick. Or Pinocchio."

"No way, buddy. Abel is a guy who gets things done. Like, he's cap-able. He's got abil-ity. He's able-minded."

"Or maybe he's just disabled!"

"Look, man, you need to cut yourself a little slack."

"Why is that, Serge? Nobody else ever did--"

Sweet Jesus! I hate planes. Can't smoke. Can't stand the food. Can't sleep. So there's nothing to do but think. Think about conversations that lead to nothing, to questions that'll never be answered. Or about things that need to be buried deep down beneath the earth.

Buried with my not-soon-enough forgotten past.

Buried with my loving father.

And with my Thirst.

My seat above the wing was too damn noisy to let me get any shut-eye. Every time I tried to let myself go, a crash from the galley or a lurch of turbulence would slap me back to reality. Who knew what was going on back there? Could be some asshole with a box cutter or a bomb in his shoe.

Stomach turning over, I stared up the aisle at the passengers' drooping heads until my eyes fastened on the flight attendant's ass, appearing and disappearing behind the first-class curtain. Well, at least that was a nice little show.

I was aching for one of those palm-sized gin bottles and a Newport.

"No shit," I thought, continuing my imaginary conversation with Serge. "If she hadn't given me this stupid name I wouldn't even be on this goddamn plane. Wouldn't have spent that couple of bricks left over from the funeral to buy a ticket to a place where I know I don't need to go. Wouldn't be using up my hard-earned vacation looking for a woman who doesn't even care if I'm alive."

"You got something better to do?"

"You damn straight! I should be in Vegas this very minute sitting by a roulette wheel."

"Come on, Abe. You don't know a goddamn thing about gambling!"

"I might have a hidden talent. Might turn out to be a crack at the tables."

"A crackhead, more likely."

"Might even strike it rich!"

"And then what?"

"No more stinking tunnels, man. No more busted cables at four a.m. No--I'd just take my ass to a bamboo hut in the Bahamas and never be seen again."

"The Bahamas? Oh, please! You hate fishing, you can't swim and you sure as hell don't need a tan."

"So I'd write my book, Serge. Write from sunrise to sunset, live off mangoes and papayas and let the paper make some sense out of my goddamn life."

"That's crazy, Abe. How're you gonna live without your daily dose of Miles?"

"I'd just get me some steel drums and teach the natives how to play them Harlem-style."

I tried to imagine myself, naked and dreadlocked, surrounded by West Indian beauties in my thatched hut by the sea, but the plane's engines forced me back to my New York reality: night after night of dragging cables through the tunnels beneath the city, my bones aching from the constant grind of the generators. The only difference between my shifts in the tunnels and this long damn flight was that now I was strapped into a plane seat, so I couldn't get up and piss a hot stream into a dark alley. No, on a plane you were trapped in a space even smaller than a coffin.

Smaller than my own father's coffin.

"Planes is cool, boy," he used to say every time he spotted a silver bird rising into the sky from La Guardia. "Planes take you away to some other life. Get you out of the ghetto. Take you somewhere where it don't matter if you Black. Ain't no Jim Crow on a plane. Seats all the same size. Tinfoil food same for every damn body. Liquor, too."

Liquor. My hands began to tremble at the thought of a whisky sour at thirty-three thousand feet. Lick. Er. Sweat slicked my forehead and my finger inched toward the little orange silhouette of a woman on the armrest. All I'd have to do was press the button. Press the button. A lovely, melodic blink would sound and that blonde with the nice ass would pad over to my seat. She'd bend over, her breasts near my cheek, and smile.

"Can I get you something, sir?"

I would look up into her eyes and ask for just one teeny-tiny little something to hold me over the Atlantic.

"Chivas? Tanqueray? Or Beefeater, sir?"

"Make it a Chivas."

Yessir. She'd nod and vanish up the aisle, then reappear with a small white tray and a plastic tumbler filled with rock-hard ice and a blue cocktail napkin. I'd thank her and lean back, gently twisting the cap off the little palm-size bottle. Smiling secretly, I'd play a little roulette with my choice of poison, pouring a perfect arc of golden liquid into that plastic glass. Then I'd take a sip, feeling my tongue go numb under the smooth assault of the scotch. With stunning slowness I would drink my medicine, letting the icy lava roll down like a slow-motion orgasm from my scalp to my toes. Might even put me to sleep like the businessman on my left, who began to snore, his breath smelling like booze, even before the vulture took off.

"Easy does it, man," I heard Serge's warning voice: "You got to fight to control it. When it tickles your balls, ignore it. When it aches in your heart, speak to it. But when it starts screaming in your brain, that's when you got to call on your Higher Power--"

"I don't need a Higher Power!"

"Come on, Abe. You been dealing with this long enough to know you can't do it alone."

"But I am alone. And I got to deal with it alone."

"Look: Your sobriety is too damned important to get fucked up by your pride."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"Just because you hate your father doesn't mean you have to hate God. . . ."

"Sheeit," I muttered, stroking the tiny orange button, but not hard enough to illuminate it. Once again I caught a glimpse of the flight attendant's blue uniform, and my thoughts leapt to another uniformed woman--the nurse in the intensive care unit, called by the blinking buttons on my father's life-support system.

Green, blue, yellow flashing buttons. How could anyone stand the thought that one touch on the wrong button might literally end somebody's life? I thought about that Black woman's vibe. She looked mighty comfortable as she checked monitors and adjusted gauges.

"Does he feel anything?" I asked her, trying to replace the low moan of those machines with a human voice. The nurse glanced over at me, shook her head without speaking, and left the room.

I only realized when the door swished shut behind her that my father, Louis Franklin Crofton--one of the biggest motherfuckers of all time--was finally going to die.

They'd wanted to put him into hospice, but his condition went down so fast that they'd ended up just letting him fade out in the same three-by-six space where the ambulance spat him out two days earlier. An emergency call had found its way through the network of public service offices and switchboards of assistants and managers until my shift captain heard a crackling voice on the radio. The cap walked through the November night and climbed down the steel ladder to the tunnel below Seventh Avenue.

"Crofton!" His voice echoed down to where we were rewiring the city's electric grid in a floodlit manhole. Thinking that Nee Cee had found some new way to drive me crazy, I climbed up, cursing under my breath while the other guys muttered, "Shit, she's at it again!" and "Can't Abe muzzle that bitch?"

But instead of the hysterical ranting of my once-upon-a-sometime woman, I heard a cold voice on the line, telling me about Louis Crofton's collapse at some run-down nightclub. He needed surgery immediately.

I traveled to the hospital by subway, still wearing my work clothes, my boots crusty with mud. I hardened my heart against the painful memories as the train rocketed up to Harlem. And finally I stood in the center of a ring of doctors who told me that my father's liver was shot and he had nothing left to do but die.

Reluctantly I called Nee Cee and asked her to go to my place and bring me some fresh clothes. I tried not to think about the fact that she would ransack every inch of my apartment for any sign of a female presence. I knew she'd find the condoms and the number of the girl from the building next door who came up for a recreational fuck every once in a while. Nee Cee would also discover that stash of videocassettes and the couple of worn-out magazines I couldn't bring myself to throw out.

But Nee Cee's jealousy was the price I'd have to pay. I wanted to stay by Louis's side in case he said something. Standing in the antiseptic hall while nurses walked by, I figured that this was my last chance to know.

And my wish was granted--at least in part. Sometime in the middle of the second day my father asked for water. I scrambled across the room from the window where I'd been watching the gray buildings and the gray sky and the gray traffic below. I crouched beside him, taking what I could of his swollen fingers into my hand and leaning in close.

"This is some shit," Louis declared through all the medications.

"You're doing good, Dad," I muttered, almost ashamed of myself for such an outright lie.

"Don't waste your breath," he hissed. He tried to shift, but the straps and tubes held him tight. "Listen, boy, I want you to give Vanelle my mama's Bible," he said clearly. I felt his thick flesh shake in my hand. "Go and get my horn from the club. That's for your Uncle Buddy." There was a long pause. "Everything else is for you."

Silence followed. I didn't know what to say because I knew damn well there wasn't much else. I had never in my life gotten a goddamn thing from my father--except maybe my addiction to alcohol and my love of jazz.

Now he grunted heavily and closed his eyes. I brought my face down to his lips.

"Pop?" I whispered, daring myself to do what forty-five years on earth hadn't given me the guts to do. "Pop--do you know where she is?"

For a minute I thought he hadn't heard me. Or that he just wasn't going to answer. Then his eyes opened to slits and I caught a glimpse of the sly man I'd known for all of my life.

"I don't give a shit where she's at."

"I--I need to find her."

"She don't want you."

"Pop, if you know, please tell me," I said, strangling on the respect I was giving him.

"Far as I know . . ." Louis managed to turn his head--"she long since gone."

"At least--at least tell me her name."

The yellow eyes fixed on my face. "She don't have no name."

Those words hit me like a slap in the face. I dropped his hand and sat back on the chair beside the bed. I knew I should say something more to him. Something about God. But I couldn't.

Finally I stood up. My anger felt like lead in the soles of my shoes. I stood looking down on the mummified figure until I realized he was no longer breathing.

Suddenly I was jolted awake by the voice of the captain notifying the passengers that we were beginning our descent into Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport. I glanced around, realizing that I had managed to fall asleep--in fact, I'd slept right through my breakfast. The flight attendants were coming up the aisles, throwing the plastic trays into dark garbage bags. I felt like spitting to clear the airplane taste from my mouth. I felt like pissing, but the line to the bathrooms stretched nearly to the front of the plane.

Well, I made it. All the way to the Netherlands. And I managed to do it without pushing that orange button.

You're right, Serge, I thought as the seat-belt light flashed on. Easy does it.


I followed the groggy line of passengers down a corridor toward Passport Control.

"What is the purpose of your trip?" The immigration officer looked at my passport.

I'm looking for a woman without a name, I thought. "Vacation," I said.

The man looked up. "How long do you plan to be here, Mr. Crofton?"

Not a moment longer than necessary. "Ten days."

For a long, cool moment he looked into my eyes and I wondered what this white man saw: A drunk? A tunnel worker? A Black man who had no right to be here?

"Enjoy your stay," he said, snapping my passport shut and nodding me through the gate.

Shouldering my bag, I crossed the glass and steel terminal. This was it: my first view in memory of the world outside the United States. Hell--this was my first view of life beyond New York.

Soon the taxi was winding through Amsterdam's needle-thin streets, which were crowded with bicycles and parked cars. Every street seemed to border a canal, and the canals were full of houseboats and barges.

"The Netherlands was once only marshland," the taxi driver explained. I was surprised by how good his English was. "That is, of course, the reason our nation is called the 'Netherlands'--or 'low countries.' Our forefathers created our nation by building these waterways and constructing dikes against the sea."

Dikes? An image of the little blond boy in wooden shoes with his finger stuck in the wall flashed through my mind, but it was instantly replaced by the sight of a series of bridges rising in parallel arches over yet another canal. I'd secretly collected pictures of Amsterdam when I was a kid, tearing them out of magazines in the school library and hiding them under my mattress at home. But now I was surprised at how much more beautiful Amsterdam was than the photos--even in December. The taxi turned onto a narrow waterfront street.

"We are now entering the oldest part of the city," the driver continued. "Many of these buildings date back to the sixteenth century. They were constructed by wealthy merchants. You can see the--how do you say it?--the pulleys on the top floor of the buildings. They were once used to unload goods from boats docked below."
Heather Neff|Author Q&A

About Heather Neff

Heather Neff - Haarlem

Photo © Marcel Neff

HEATHER NEFF, Ph.D., is a professor of literatures in the African diaspora at Eastern Michigan University and holds a doctorate from the University of Zurich. She is the author of two previous novels, Blackgammon and Wisdom, which was named an Honor Book by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Her fourth novel, Haarlem, will be published by Harlem Moon in 2005. She lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Author Q&A

“Haarlem sings so saintly that somewhere James Baldwin is smiling.”
–Ernesto Quiñonez, author of Bodega Dreams

The author recently took some time to answer our questions about HAARLEM.

Black Ink: This book marks a departure for you from your earlier books like Wisdom and Accident of Birth. Can you tell us the motivation or impetus for this change?

Heather Neff: Like my earlier novels Blackgammon, Wisdom, and Accident of Birth, HAARLEM addresses themes that are extremely important in our swiftly changing world: notions of racial and sexual identity, confronting social inequalities in both our country and in other nations, and the responsibility of individuals to the people they love. My earlier works have been set in locales as far-ranging as Detroit, Paris, the Virgin Islands, and Liberia, West Africa. HAARLEM is, in its turn, equally divided between the Netherlands and New York, and attempts to comment on both cultures by virtue of comparison.

The protagonist of HAARLEM, however, lacks the self-confidence and sense of personal agency that have defined my earlier characters. Plagued by an impoverished and oftentimes abusive childhood, forty-five-year-old Abel Crofton is a blue-collar worker and recovering alcoholic who has spent much of his adult life struggling with sobriety. This ongoing challenge has dominated every aspect of his existence, keeping him in a state of near-emotional paralysis for years.

The story of Abel Crofton’s healing has given me the opportunity to focus on the finer and often-overlooked details of profound emotional trauma. Abel’s story is smaller in sweep than that of my earlier novels, but it makes up in intensity for what it surrenders in scope. The characters in HAARLEM are everyday people who are trying to survive in an often brutally uncaring world–and yet their stories are as painfully beautiful as any ever told.

BI: What connections will the reader find between Manhattan’s Harlem and Dutch Haarlem?

HN: In many ways both “Harlems” function as sites of spiritual and emotional nurturing for Abel. Despite having passed many difficult years in New York’s Harlem, Abel is aware that the city has provided him with a sense of cultural identity, racial pride, and social awareness.

It is thus the Harlem-bred man who arrives in the Netherlands, ready to discover how the Dutch Haarlem can affect his quest for wholeness. Indeed, the Old World Haarlem offers Abel an end to years of emotional exile from himself and from others.

BI: HAARLEM is obviously a work of fiction, but its themes of addiction and recovery resonate powerfully. Is there a stigma in the Black community against acknowledging addiction and entering recovery? If so, what is your purpose in addressing the issue in your fiction?

HN: Many artistic works view addicts as social “Others,” exiled from mainstream culture and lost to their families and communities. In HAARLEM I hope to shed some insight into the hearts and minds of all people–regardless of race–who are fighting addiction, in the hope that we will make the effort to educate ourselves and offer support to those in need.

BI: What is the import of racial identity in HAARLEM, and how do those notions of identity differ among the main characters?

HN: Concepts of racial identity are often defined by geographic borders. Abel Crofton’s understanding of himself as an African American male gains a new resonance as he meets other Blacks in the Netherlands and begins to recognize different notions of racial identity. For example, Sophie and Saskia, whose ancestry is a mix of African and East Indian, offer Abel a completely new understanding of what it means to be Black living in Europe.

BI: How do biblical archetypes operate in HAARLEM?

HN: HAARLEM looks specifically at two biblical stories dealing with the tensions that divide brothers–the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), and the New Testament tale of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Both of these stories reflect on issues that are still relevant to modern life: sibling rivalry, the need to please a father perceived as omnipotent, and the dangers of straying into sensual temptation. The central question raised by HAARLEM is whether Abel Crofton will respond to these situations in a different manner from his archetypical prototypes.

Praise

Praise

“Heather Neff’s voice is blessed with a sustained and beautiful triumph of truth that cries out with anguish, anger, and love for a people and place. Haarlem sings so saintly that somewhere James Baldwin is smiling.”—Ernesto Quiñonez, author of Bodega Dreams and Chango’s Fire

“With Haarlem, Heather Neff takes on a male voice and gives us a riveting look into the mind of a character who convincingly comes to grips with his fractured life. This is a book you won’t put down easily.”
—Ian Smith, M.D., author of The Blackbird Papers 
 

“A writer with depth, a sense of place, and a profound understanding of the human mind.”
Black Issues Book Review

Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Haarlem examines a man’s redemption through his exploration of a new terrain and his discovery of new family members as he grapples with the nightmares of his past. The questions that follow are meant to enhance your discussion of the novel and spark conversation about Abel’s road to recovery.

Discussion Guides

1. What are the events in Abel’s life that have most influenced his ability to love another person?

2. What factors contributed to Abel’s decision to return to the Netherlands and try to find his mother?

3. How has Abel’s struggle with alcoholism affected his ability to interact with others?

4. Abel tells Serge that he doesn’t believe in “that invisible white man in the sky.” What are some of the other ways that Serge suggests that Abel might think of his Higher Power?

5. Upon arriving in Amsterdam, Abel is impressed by the clean, crime-free appearance of the city. How does this impression change over time?

6. How did Sophie come to live in Amsterdam, and how does her past continue to influence her life?

7. How is Abel’s relationship with Sophie different from his relationships with other women?

8. How does Abel change when he finds his mother?

9. How does learning about August Sebastian affect Abel? How do Abel’s feelings about his brother develop over the course of the novel?

10. What does Sophie teach Abel? Does Sophie learn anything from him?

11. The city of Amsterdam seems very different in many ways from New York. What new perspectives does Abel gain about his life as he spends time in Amsterdam?

12. How are issues of race and ethnicity depicted in Haarlem? How is Sophie’s understanding of herself as a Black woman different from that of African-Americans?

13. What do we learn of August Sebastian’s past? How does that information influence your perception of him?

14. Which Bible stories are referenced in Haarlem?

15. According to the novel, what are some of the differences in the ways that drugs and alcohol are consumed in the United States and the Netherlands? What are the differences in the ways the two nations respond to problems of addiction?

16. How does Abel’s recovery from alcoholism grow through his relationships with his mother? Sophie? Serge? His brother?

17. How important are Twelve-Step Programs in the recovery of the main characters in this novel?

18. How has Abel changed by the end of the novel? What choices has he made, and how will those choices affect the lives of those around him?

19. At the end of the novel Abel says, “Sometimes it hurts to think about where I came from. But now I know it’s the only way to understand how far I’ve come.” How is this true?


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