Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone

This edition printed in:

A tabby cat walks past a copy of Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.

Waiting for the Mail

When you work freelance, one of the things that becomes more present in your life than you ever thought it would be is the mail. When it is coming, and what it will bring, and when it is supposed to bring it. Those are the thoughts revolving around your cranium in quick succession as you cross your fingers and open that mailbox and say a small prayer to no one in particular that you will find something you need in the little cold metal bin.

Cheques. Mostly it’s cheques you will be looking for. And, unfortunately, they will usually not arrive when you need them and definitely won’t arrive when you want them. Thusly, you will continually be asking the question, ‘Where the hell are the cheques?’ I know that some of you are thinking that most payments are made via EFT these days or direct deposit. Sadly, this is not always the case. Especially with clients that are located near and far.

Considering a freelance career? Just remember that this might very well be your reality.

An orange cat and a tabby cat stand in rainbow-tinted light over a book by James Baldwin.

Black History Month Begins!

It’s February, which means that all my reviews this month will feature a Black writer, the first being James Baldwin. Baldwin is hands-down my favourite essayist, and I would argue that it is in his personal essays that his voice truly shines. That’s why he is more widely known for them. But they were not the only thing that Baldwin wrote. He wrote reviews, poetry, short stories, plays, and — of course — novels.

An orange cat walks over a copy of James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone is not one of Baldwin’s well-known novels, but it is perhaps one of his most complex. The book centers around Leo Proudhammer, a Black actor that has just had a heart attack during a performance. As Proudhammer recovers, he reflects back on his life and career and the relationships that have defined both. Barbara, a white woman from Kentucky, is one of his oldest friends and a fellow actor. Christopher is a younger Black man who is active in the shifting political movement of the time. Meanwhile, Proudhammer’s brother Caleb has devoted his life to religion and his attempts to influence Proudhammer form a stark contrast to Christopher and Barbara combined.

Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone by James Baldwin has a purple-tinted cover with the bottom-third covered by a photo of two mouths: a Black man's a white woman's.

A Matter of Theme

Approaching this novel with the expectation of a basic chronological narrative is definitely a mistake. Instead, this is an exploration of many interconnected and complex themes.  I’m not going to be able to parse apart all of them here, but I will tackle a couple of the more subtle ones.

I found the most compelling one that of Proudhammer’s response to being labelled ‘Black and gifted’ as his accomplishments are diminished but at the same time more is expected of him. To become an actor, he doesn’t just have to be good; he has to be exceptional. And even once he proves himself exceptional, there is a different set of rules and a different set of realities.

An orange tabby walks past Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.

Exploration of that theme dovetails with an exploration of institutionalized racism. No matter what type of acting he pursues or how good of an actor he is, Proudhammer is a Black actor and his race means there are stereotypes, roles, and racist assumptions that he cannot escape. Hollywood Shuffle, the 1987 Robert Townsend film, explores the same subject.

At the same time that Proudhammer is struggling with racism from institutions and from the populace in general, he is also at odds with Christopher’s activism. And his brother’s choice to hide behind religion instead of dealing with his problems or past. And Barbara’s well-meaning ignorance. He is caught between many ideas and urges and continues to be caught. His life offers no easy solutions and the forces around him are not ones that just disappear. Racism was and still is a horrible reality and nothing that Proudhammer does will fix that.

Casting dark shadows into soft rainbow light, a tortie sniffs a book on tile.

Critical Reception

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone was not well-received when it was published and was compared unfavourably to Baldwin’s earlier work. Critics seemed to be unwilling to look past the discussion of the politics discussed to the real heart of the book. I would argue that the book is actually just as relevant now as it was back in 1968 and that the reviewers in 1968 were predominantly white and male and that definitely impacted the novel’s critical reception. In essence, it meant that the reviews were not reflective of the merit of the book. Now there is a push to go back to Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and appreciate it for the excellent book it is. It’s sad that it has mostly been forgotten by time.

In general, this is a lesson that critical reception should never be the determining factor to whether or not one chooses to read a book. Contemporary critics are often wrong and you will miss many great novels if you only listen to critics and do not direct your own reading and do your own research.

James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone lies on a tile floor. A tortie sniffs the corner.

March Budgeting

We have an extra mortgage payment due in March and therefore we are starting to prepare for it now because another reality of freelance is that you have to look at expenses that for others seem rather far apace on the horizon.

I believe that we will be fine, no matter what my anxiety is trying to tell me. But I do have to face up to February being a tighter month that is comfortable. Though, I guess I am trying to limit my book buying anyway, so I shouldn’t really complain about the timing.

An orange cat arches over a book, casting dark shadows into rainbow-peppered light.

Notify of
Inline Feedback
View all comments