John Edgar Wideman likes to be in places where people don’t know who he is or what he does for a living. He spends most of the year in New York, but two of his favorite people here are his barber and his massage therapist, both Chinese immigrants who barely speak English. He was explaining this to me in December, over a lunch of rare steak-frites and Bordeaux at Lucien, a bistro a few blocks from his Lower East Side apartment. “I go to a bar, I get to know the bartenders and the manager,” he said. “That’s where I get my mezcal, that’s my place, that’s what I do. But parties, hanging out?” He shook his head. “I don’t have anybody living around me who has much of a sense of what I do. That’s exactly what I like.”
Lucien Bahaj, the restaurant’s owner, and his wife, Phyllis, came over to the table to greet Wideman. It was clear they knew him as a regular but, judging from their conversation, not at all as the author of 21 highly distinguished works of fiction and nonfiction or as a MacArthur genius who was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters or, for that matter, as one of the first three African-Americans to ever earn a Rhodes Scholarship.
If they knew any of that about Wideman the writer, they would also have to know this about Wideman the person: He is the older brother of a man convicted of murder, serving a life sentence without the chance of parole; the uncle of a young man shot execution-style in his own home; the father of a boy who, at age 16, woke up one night while traveling with a group of campers, got out of bed and stabbed his roommate to death while he was sleeping. The drama of Wideman’s personal history can seem almost mythical, refracting so many aspects of the larger black experience in America, an experience defined less by its consistencies, perhaps, than by its many contradictions — the stunning and ongoing plurality of victories and defeats.