Smart Cookie

Oreo (New Directions Paperbook) BY Fran Ross. edited by Danzy Senna, Harryette Mullen. New Directions. Paperback, 240 pages. $14.

Powered by Yiddish, neologisms, ten-dollar words, and jive talk, Oreo, Fran Ross’s scabrous, shrewd satire of race, religion, and sex that’s nested within a reimagining of Theseus’s odyssey, often threatens to jump out of the reader’s hands with its irrepressible logophilia. This is a novel that refuses to be categorized or tamed in any way, with the first of its many provocations signaled by its title—which is the nickname of its young protagonist, née Christine Schwartz, the daughter of a black mother and a white Jewish father. Oreo was originally published in 1974 to little notice. The neglect was likely due to the fact that the genre the book most closely adheres to, the postmodern picaresque, wasn’t exactly in vogue for African American women writers at the time. This was the era, after all, of Maya Angelou’s ascendance; the second installment of her autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, was released the same year as Oreo. Four decades later, Ross’s novel, which is being reissued with an introduction by novelist Danzy Senna and a foreword by scholar Harryette Mullen, still stands apart. Its closest comparisons are perhaps the way-out parodies of Paul Beatty, who included an excerpt from Oreo in Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, which he edited in 2006.

Oreo was the only book published by Ross, who died, at age fifty, from cancer in 1985. She was born in Philadelphia in 1935 and moved to New York in 1960, where she worked as a proofreader, copy editor, and freelance writer, contributing pieces to, among other publications, Essence and Playboy (for the latter, she wrote a waggish article on black slang). In 1977, Ross moved to Los Angeles to work as a writer on the Richard Pryor Show; after that TV series’ brief, four-episode run, she declined an offer to script for Laverne & Shirley—imagine what those Shotz Brewery coworkers and roommates could have got up to had Ross signed on—and returned to New York, where she remained until her death.

However fleeting, Ross’s collaboration with Pryor must have been promising; neither had any use for pieties or soothing fictions. As Hilton Als notes in his astute appreciation of Pryor in his essay collection White Girls (2013), “The work of the brilliant performer is to make a habit of disjunction.” Similar to the firebrand comedian, who, per Als, “was a confusion of female and male, colored and white . . . act[ing] out this internal drama onstage for our entertainment,” Oreo’s young heroine also detonates dualities. Biracial and bicultural, fluent in several idioms both high and low, and able to adapt to any situation, Oreo is much more than the sum of her parts (halves?), embodying—and enacting—what Senna calls a “multiplicity.”

Oreo, in fact, contains as many elements as Ross’s novel itself. The link with Greek mythology and Theseus, whose adventures serve as the model for Oreo’s, is immediately made evident in the chapter titles: “Periphetes,” “Sinis,” and “Phaea,” to list just a few examples. Yet Ross is too restless to commit to a single naming system: The first chapter, “Mishpocheh,” is Yiddish for “extended family.” And it is in Oreo’s opening pages that Ross, via bursts of subheadings, introduces the heroine and her kin. Her parents, Helen Clark and Samuel Schwartz, met at Philadelphia’s Temple University (the author’s own alma mater). By the book’s second paragraph, which recounts the response of Helen’s father to the announcement of her upcoming nuptials, Ross has already proved her gift for outrageous, hilarious observation, her lines made even tarter through her use of filler and dependent clauses:

When James Clark heard from the sweet lips of Helen (Honeychile) Clark that she was going to wed a Jew-boy and would soon be Helen (Honeychile) Schwartz, he managed to croak one anti-Semitic “Goldberg!” before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika, discounting, of course, head, hands, and feet.

Helen and Samuel split up before Oreo’s younger brother, Moishe, aka Jimmie C., is born. Samuel stays in New York, his hometown, where he works as a voice-over actor and breaks off all contact with his family; Helen hits the road, leaving her kids to be raised in Philadelphia by her mother, Louise, with the occasional assist by the aforementioned incapacitated James. Both Oreo’s sibling and her granny speak in vernaculars all their own: Jimmie C. invents “cha-key-key-wah language,” and Louise communicates in a “southern accent . . . thick as hominy grits,” dialect that Ross delights in rendering phonetically. It is Oreo, however, who is the most lexically gifted: “She had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry. When told at an early age that she would one day have to seek out her father to learn the secret of her birth, she said, ‘I am going to find that motherfucker.’ In her view, the last word was merely le mot juste.”

And so, at the age of sixteen, Oreo, endeavoring to unlock that very mystery, leaves Philly for Manhattan, where she discovers that there are “twenty-six Samuel Schwartzes and twenty-two S. Schwartzes” in the phone book. To winnow that list down to the Schwartz half responsible for her existence, the intrepid teenager bounces all over the city, a zigzag adventure that includes an encounter with a pimp named Parnell that is so lurid and loony that it makes Pam Grier’s blaxploitation benchmark, the contemporaneous Foxy Brown, look like, well, Laverne & Shirley.

Revealed in the book’s final pages, Oreo’s origin story, like just about everything that precedes it, is gloriously screwy. My galley of Oreo is riddled with circled words, both Yiddish and English, that I still need to look up, though their meaning is always clear in Ross’s context, no matter how crazy the narrative. And even a dead tongue is electrifyingly reanimated: Oreo’s motto (which also happens to be that of Scotland) is nemo me impune lacessit. The fierce declaration—“no one attacks me with impunity”—serves as a perfect closer to this ingeniously unhinged novel.

Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to Artforum.