“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.
Excerpted from Haarlem by Heather Neff. Copyright © 2005 by Heather Neff. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“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.
“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
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?