In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
In a literary landscape often obsessed with youth—whether it’s the buzz surrounding so-called hot new talent or those “30 under 30” and “best of young novelists” lists—stories of late-in-life success prove especially fascinating. I’m talking about writers like Penelope Fitzgerald, who didn’t publish her first book until she was in her late fifties, and won the Booker Prize at sixty-three. Or the British novelist Mary Wesley, who was seventy when the first of her ten best-selling novels for adults made it into print. Then we have the doyenne of them all, Diana Athill, who experienced unexpected literary celebrity in her nineties. As such, Cleo Overstreet’s debut novel, The Boar Hog Woman—which was published in 1972, when its author was fifty-seven years old—couldn’t help but catch my attention. David Henderson’s celebratory obituary for Overstreet, which ran in the Berkeley Barb on the occasion of her death, only three years later, in the summer of 1975, opens with a description of the deceased as “a grandmother and a novelist.” She “came to writing late in life,” Henderson explains, “but she had in her mind’s eye many stories to tell. She dedicated the last 12 years of her life to putting them down on paper.” Unlike Fitzgerald, Wesley, and Athill, however, Overstreet’s late-in-life career was sadly short and sweet. Henderson mentions her “unpublished novels,” referring to the most recent by name: Hurricane, the manuscript of which Overstreet’s close friend Ishmael Reed was apparently asked to edit for posthumous publication by Random House. Yet as far as I can see, this never actually happened, which means that The Boar Hog Woman remains the only one of Overstreet’s books to have made it into print.
Of all the books and authors I’ve written about thus far in this column, The Boar Hog Woman and Cleo Overstreet have to be those about which and whom I’ve uncovered the least information. Bar the brief author bio on the dust jacket of my secondhand copy of The Boar Hog Woman, Henderson’s obituary is the only account of Overstreet’s life that I’ve found. There’s a short Kirkus review of the novel that describes it as “weirdly engrossing,” and a significantly longer write-up—a rave, by the writer and film scholar Clyde Taylor—in the June 1974 edition of Black World. But what I learned from these pieces, combined with the novel’s publication date, was enough to intrigue me. Two of the most exciting and experimental female-authored works to emerge from the Black Arts Movement were written during the early seventies—Fran Ross’s Oreo (1974) and Carlene Hatcher Polite’s Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play (1975)—so I was keen to see how The Boar Hog Woman compared.
Short answer: although not quite up there with Oreo, Overstreet’s entertaining and often moving account of the comings and goings of a close-knit Black community in mid-’60s Oakland, California, more than holds its own. But don’t just take my word for it. “Cleo Overstreet has done to narrative what Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes did to Negro poetry, put it on a solid Black footing by tapping the folkroot,” Taylor writes. “She gives a hip to the creaky machinery of the novel—point of view, stream of consciousness, the objectivity of the narrator, the incessant analysis of motivation, jabber jabber—then she leaves it hanging out to rust. She has up-fingered its tradition more successfully than any Black writer in North America.”
Overstreet’s garrulous narrator—a woman of late middle age who runs a beauty salon (as the author herself did) but whose name we never learn—tells long-winded tales about her friends and neighbors, including the titular Boar Hog Woman, who runs the barbershop where the local men like to hang out, and whom the narrator’s own husband, Hars, has recently left her for. The Kirkus review sums it up well: the novel is “about nothing so much as its own energy, as it jumps dazzlingly from event to event, casually skipping years here and there in total indifference to causality, psychology, and symbolism—all the conventional devices that over-imbue our ordinary novels with ‘meaning.’ ” The narrator certainly doesn’t mince words when it comes to her villainous rival—or any other character, come to think about it—thus, reading the novel is like listening to a gossipy friend. It’s easy to imagine her accompanying side-eye, raised eyebrows, and pursed lips. One of the best jokes here is how often the narrator complains about everyone else’s blathering and tattling, while she’s clearly the worst of the lot! Fictional shenanigans aside—a funeral that’s a hotbed of fainting and fighting, an old man whose attempts to join the gang at the barbershop are thwarted by bands of flower children, even a search for buried treasure—Overstreet paints a portrait of the kind of community that she clearly knows intimately, and she takes as her subjects the universal themes of love, loss, and ordinary, everyday jealousies and betrayals.
So far, so authentic, but add to this an undercurrent of something decidedly strange. Were it not for the novel’s prologue—in which a Black man named Amos Sandblack gets a job rearing boar hogs in the middle of the Nevada desert, an experiment during which only one animal is ever born, a runt, which Amos’s wife treats like a baby until it disappears one day after somehow having transformed into what the couple take, at a distance, to be “a little black girl with her clothes almost torn off”—we’d be forgiven for assuming that the jealous narrator is simply painting her adversary in a less than flattering light. But something much weirder is going on. “The Boar Hog Woman is a woman who is a hog which is a male hog,” reads the opening line of the blurb on the dust jacket, which is about as clear as it gets! “Science fiction? Surrealism? Poetic license gone mad in prose?” the blurb continues. None of the above, we’re told; rather, this is a novel that should be read as “contemporary myth, touching us where myth ought to touch—at the heart of our need to understand the forces molding our destinies.”
And this is exactly what Overstreet does so brilliantly. “The Boar Hog Woman is not a novel,” writes Taylor; “it’s a story, a long tale, a mythic narrative, an East Oakland shaggy-dog story.” Beneath its more diverting, diaphanous exterior lies what Henderson describes as “an intensely moving tale of a woman who loses her man in middle-age to another woman, subsequently seeing the friends they had shared drifting away and sometimes dying.” The narrator watches in dismay as the men in the neighborhood flock like moths to the Boar Hog Woman’s flame. It doesn’t matter that she’s no great beauty, and it’s not just Hars whom she entices away from his wife. The Boar Hog Woman employs a staff of “aged whores,” well-practiced at handling their clientele. The men might all be so old they “could not have raised a hard if their life depended on it,” but in the company of these women, they behave as though they’re frisky young studs. And although distinctly unimpressed by these drooling lovesick “fools,” the narrator can’t help pining after her lost husband. Such is life, though; his abandonment is presented as a horrible inevitability. She’s not the first wife to be deserted, and she won’t be the last. “The life of a wife is like the life of a maid,” she reports, half in anger, half in resignation. “She can work the hell out of herself and try to make something comfortable or make ends meet. And that son-of-a-bitch will go and find his old worn-out whore and put her in front of his wife.”
Not that this is a world without loyalty. The community is tethered together in large part by the steadfastness of friends, not to mention the kindness of strangers. In a particularly affecting episode, two children who embark on a long and perilous journey across the city one rainy night to visit their father’s grave are thankfully taken under the wing of a passing benevolent truck driver. Then there’s the man who usually keeps an eye out for them—their dead father’s best friend—no matter how rude their widowed mother is to him. Or take the narrator’s relationship with her old pal Katie Blue, a woman who “would do you a big favor and in the same breath would cut your throat with her tongue.” Underneath this caustic exterior, the women are still there for each other.
In spite of the rather pathetic predictability of the old men’s conduct, there’s more than an air of melancholy to their antics. Overstreet encourages us to laugh at them, but that doesn’t stop her from also presenting them as victims of circumstances and structures beyond their control: “All of these men had hard jobs, and they worked hard on those jobs. They would work all the week working like a mule and misusing their home and thinking that they were enjoying themselves. This was a slow way of committing suicide by working all of the week and sitting up all of the weekends and drinking rotgut whiskey.” As Taylor points out, although not “de Text of revolutionary Black consciousness,” it is a novel “brushed by that awareness.” As Overstreet writes:
The system for over four hundred years had had its eyes focused on the black man. This was worked on him and his manhood, trying to stand up like a man. He has all the qualities of a man, but the system won’t let him perform like a man … The white man uses psychology on the black man in every way. He might call him “Boy,” that is the old way of working on the black man’s mind. Now this theory has gotten old, now he has to think in terms of some other way of exploiting the black man.
Systemic racism is nothing new, of course, but the nuance of Overstreet’s observations—the way she probes the intersections of race and gender to explore the emasculation of Black men and the knock-on effect this has on the way they treat the Black women in their lives—seems pretty advanced for the time of the book’s publication.
As a case in point, perhaps the most stirring, not to mention shocking, episode here is when one of the gang, Ben, gets drunk with Hars and confesses—for the first time ever, it seems—that beginning when he was a child and on through his adolescence, he was sexually abused by a significantly older white woman. As he tells his story, we learn that it wasn’t just that he couldn’t say no; he had to contend with the knowledge that if his abuser’s white husband ever walked in on them, she would have “hollered raped, and they would have killed me and she would have stood in line watching it.” It was a good thing war broke out when it did, Ben says, drawing his tale to a close. “Man, you are talking crazy,” Hars tells him, confused as to how his friend could welcome something that amounted to so much death. “But look at all the lives that is lost in the black race in those Mississippi delta and hills, and nobody do anything about it,” Ben counters. Earlier in the novel a joke is made of the fact that Ben can’t tell the difference between the Civil War and World War II, but no one’s laughing now: “In my book World War Two was the Civil War,” he explains soberly, “because where I lived it was still slavery, and many of those colored people was able to get away from their slave masters and they had a job waiting for them and a place to stay. Roosevelt did more for the colored people that way than Abraham did; at least he did what he promised them.”
Since she herself was born, raised, and married in rural Mississippi, when her characters talk about pre–World War II life in the South, we can only assume Overstreet’s writing about a world she knew well. After living in Georgia, Washington, Oregon, and New York, she and her family settled in Berkeley in the early forties. She attended a variety of colleges, including real estate school, mortuary school, and beautician school. She also raised three children—Harry Lee Overstreet, a Berkeley-based architect and politician; the abstract expressionist artist Joe Overstreet, who lived and worked in New York for most of his life; and her daughter, Laverta O. Allen, who worked in education—and, at the time of The Boar Hog Woman’s publication, had eleven grandchildren. Overstreet was active in the civil rights movement from the early sixties to the time of her death, and Henderson—who knew her personally—describes her as “one of the most dynamic women I have ever met,” a combination of “ancient griot spirit of wisdom mixed with contemporary Americana.” This is something that comes across in her work: Taylor describes The Boar Hog Woman as “ooz[ing] the intuitive, self-comfortable Blackness of a holy-roller lady, without the self-consciousness of ideology.”
Why The Boar Hog Woman isn’t better known today, I’m really not sure. According to Henderson, Overstreet had more than a handful of notable admirers: Taylor and Reed, of course, but also the well-known feminist Kate Millett, the activist lawyer Flo Kennedy, as well as other academics in the Berkeley area. Taylor rates the novel “in the front ranks of Black fiction … alongside of Ellison, Wright, Toni Morrison, Reed, Gaines, Himes, Toomer, Kelley, McKay, way up there.” Henderson also argues that Overstreet’s brilliant depiction of older women (and men) should have seen her more widely championed by the women’s liberation movement: “She used an oral poetic tonality that gave her reader full entry into the main character’s heart and mind. No, love is just not for teenagers, nor the jokes about the old folks doing it in the old folks home, love is eternal and the emotions Cleo Overstreet’s protagonist feels over lost love is universal, is anyone’s heartbreak.” When he hails her use of language—which he describes as “straight out of Mississippi, via Africa, she is not as eloquent as Doris Lessing or as poetic as Anais Nin, but if you go with just the power and energy of the works, then Cleo Overstreet ranks with the highest of the highest”—he’s echoing Taylor’s memorable summation of the novel: “It might hit you like white lightning when your taste runs to Scotch, but you have to give it dues for undiluted strength and character.” To think that this was just the beginning of what she could have gone on to write feels like such a cruelly snatched-away opportunity—stolen from both Overstreet herself, since she’d waited so long to dedicate herself to her writing, and from us, her readers. Whatever string of circumstances arose that contributed to The Boar Hog Woman fading away from view, Overstreet’s tragically early death undoubtedly plays a large part. In the three years between its publication and her passing, the novel went from thrilling debut to poignant swan song.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications. Read earlier installments of Re-Covered.