"Jack" by Marilynne Robinson

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 Marilynne Robinson’s novels continue to demonstrate her utter mastery, and advance her to the very top rank of current novelists. She reigns over all others currently publishing in English. Her characters have more life and depth. Her themes flow from exalted planes, and her diction hews closely to the divine. In her latest, “Jack,” she explores the thoughts and impulses of Jack Boughton, a down-on-his-luck son of a preacher. Jack  falls in love with a “colored” woman (the term used in the book) in St. Louis, shortly after World War II.

Jack wrestles with so many contradictions. Something in his strict yet loving upbringing gave him a compunction of wreck fragile objects; he habitually steals things, out of a kind of curiosity; he’s an inveterate liar, and goes on drinking binges, and so obviously can’t hold a job. Be all that as it may, when Della comes into his life, it all changes. The light in Jack’s heart comes on for the first time; he curtails his drinking and stealing habits in honor of her; instead of an urge to destroy this fragile love he has, he works devilishly hard at protecting Della, at making sure their illicit and illegal love doesn’t ruin her. He’s a marvelous, touching, and very real character.

Jack and Della are son and daughter of preachers. Jack’s Dad is a Presbyterian minister, and Della’s father is an important Baptist bishop in Memphis. Their backgrounds determine their approaches to life, like everyone’s, and each in their own way rebels against that background. Jack’s mysterious battle against his upbringing embraces his conclusion that he’s an atheist, not needing God’s guidance to live (eventually) a scrupulous life. Della’s rejection of some of her indoctrination rests on an independence of mind, from a bone-deep fatigue at a life so full of strictures.

And this brings me to one of my favorite aspects of this novel. Jack worries constantly  that he will end by ruining Della’s reputation and life. Their love, after all, is socially unacceptable and legally proscribed. He decides several times that to treat her right he must leave her. However, Della overwhelms his determination with her own, deeper resolution to have him as her husband, and in the face of that he cannot tell her no. In this way, Della exists in full depth and rounding, a creature to love, for Jack and the reader.

“Jack” is that most challenging of writing: it sustains a full and accessible exploration of the character Jack’s inner dialogue from the first page to the last. And in what a lovely fashion. Consider this, at page 250:

Dear Jesus, what was he doing? This was not what he promised himself. This was not harmlessness. He was sure he had no right to involve her in so much potential misery. How often had he thought this? But she had the right to involve herself, or had claimed the right, holding his hand the way she had. She was young, the daughter of a protective family. She might have no idea yet that embarrassment, relentless, punitive scorn, can wear away at a soul until it recedes into wordless loneliness. Maybe apophatic loneliness. God in the silence. In the deep darkness. The highest privilege, his father said. He was usually speaking of death, or course. The congregant’s soul had entered the Holy of Holies. Jack sometimes called this life he had lived prevenient death. He had learned that for all its comforts and discomforts, its stark silence first of all, there was clearly no reprieve from doing harm.

Or this, at page 292:

… it had seemed to Jack that his father proposed a sort of Promised Land where troublesome categories did not apply. ‘Night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sum, for the Lord God will be their light.’ Those words nullified a very primary distinction. ‘God separated the light from the darkness,’ in the very first moments of creation. Verse 4. Then how was anyone to believe that any distinction was absolute, not secondary to a more absolute intention, the luminous reality concealed behind the veil of experience? He thought he should write this down, to show it to Della, maybe to her father. He and Della had been there, in that luminous absence of distinctions, in that radiant light.

So memorable is the character Jack: the exacting principles of his upbringing wage a constant battle with his reprobate adult self; under the benign influence of Della, his principles metamorphose into the higher calling of love.

“Jack” completes and reinforces the “Gilead” cycle of stories. At least as the cycle now stands. Take it up. Take it up, and marvel again at the artistry of Marilynne Robinson.

 Page citations from

Jack: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson (Author) Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020), 320 pages

"The Largesse of the Sea Maiden" stories by Denis Johnson

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This posthumous collection by Denis Johnson displays a series of stances toward death: courting it, anticipating it, solving its puzzles, parsing out how it affects kinship. One clever story, “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” explores the lengths to which one young man will go to find his brother’s purported stillborn twin. It is the most fully rounded and ambitious piece of the lot. Other selections have a less clarified point, sometimes too elusive for this reader.

In the title story, Bill Whitman, an advertising executive, wins an award for work done for TV. He desultorily recalls certain salient events of his life, and wishes, in his 60s, that he could forget more of it. In a section called “Mermaid,” Bill accepts the award, is amused when he is propositioned by another man in the rest room, and walks uptown through new-fallen snow. He eventually finds a bar open where a pianist plays a traditional tune, and an “ample, attractive” blond woman sits at a table in tears. She beckons him over to sit with her, since it’s only the two of them, not counting the bartender and the piano player.

Two stories, called “The Starlight on Idaho,” and “Strangler Bob” have incarceration in common, where we learn the hopeless beginnings and the self-destructive tendencies of the wretches who populate jails and rehab centers. These are vivid, as is everything else Johnson writes. But do not look for sympathetic characters or redemption here.

The ironically titled “Triumph Over the Grave” recounts the last days of several writer acquaintances. It features a first-person writer and teacher who seems to know, or know of, quite a few other writers in their last months of life. The realism of this story makes them sad and highly believable. It seems like a heartfelt, vivid, and well-constructed obituary.

“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” sweeps through the decades-long friendship between a poet and his mentor-admirer. The poet pursues some ill-advised, one could say crackpot, schemes involving digging up Elvis Presley’s corpse, and proving some far-fetched conspiracy theories about his family and his identity. This story features an engaging twist at the end, and offers more to the reader than the others in the collection, but perhaps not as much as some of the other brilliant, award-winning work Johnson did.

And unless I revisit these pieces later, that last paragraph will have to sum up my feeling about the collection. “Train Dreams,” “Tree of Smoke,” and “The Name of the World” are the three works of his that I will never stop recommending, and remembering fondly. That does not describe this collection, unfortunately.

"The One-in-a-Million Boy" by Monica Wood

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This novel traces the posthumous influence of an 11 year-old boy on a sympathetic set of adults, and traces the effects of his life and death to self-discovery, love, responsibility, and record-setting longevity. It’s a unique, gratifying read, written with intelligence, wisdom, and most of all, charity. The author’s kindness extends to her characters as well as her readers: the love the characters feel for each other reaches the surface in unusual ways. And Monica Wood’s readers feel her kindness through the realistic strivings and the partial and sometimes surprising success they meet with. This is superb.

A shy, unaccomplished 11 year-old Boy Scout visits 104 year-old Ona to assist with chores and record her history, as part of an exercise to earn a merit badge. Ona is Lithuanian and sharp as a tack. She’s lived in the U.S. since 1913, was married to a dull, unloving man for nearly three decades, but has nevertheless lived an interesting life. After the boy’s passing, his father Quinn takes over. First he takes on the chores, and eventually he fills a void which the youngster’s passing has created. 

Quinn is in many ways the focus of the story. He performs chores around the house for Ona scrupulously at first, before their relationship gels into a friendship. Quinn’s marriage has fractured - twice - but Ona observes Quinn’s continuing devotion to his ex-wife Belle. She finds she admires Quinn’s perseverance and kindness, and allows him to help her pursue her plan to re-qualify for her driver’s license. This license is a wonderful trope by Wood, a hard encapsulation of Ona’s determined will to continue to function in the world despite her age.

“The One-in-a-Million Boy” has such a big heart: it has space for everyone’s ambitions, everyone’s failings, everyone’s redemption, everyone’s love. I recommend this book as heartily as I have before for Wood, one of my favorites. “My Only Story” is superb, “Any Bitter Thing” gratifying and balanced, but “The One-in-a-Million Boy” takes the cake. A multiple award winner, and my new favorite among Wood’s oeuvre, be sure to take this one up! 


"Antiquity" by Norman F. Cantor

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Subtitle: From the Birth of the Sumerian Civilization to the Fall of the Roman Empire - -

Author Norman F. Cantor says at the outset of his useful and outstanding book “Antiquity” that he will avoid a simple recitation of names and dates, and focus instead on the major influential trends that formed the ancient world. He keeps this promise, and the resulting book stands as an exceptional example of writing history for the layman. Any non-academic or non-historian interested in a concise, persuasive, and highly readable history from early Egypt and Iraq to the fall of Rome - this is definitely for you.

Cantor divides his work into two main sections. The first he calls the Basic Narrative, and it contains a straightforward recounting of the known ancient Western civilizations, from the “Hydraulic Despotisms” which grew up along the Nile, and in the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates. He then takes up Greece and Rome, followed by the role and hegemony of the Christians, and finally the decline of the ancient world. He indicates that a relatively well-rounded person who is the product of a Western education will not find much that is new in this section. His presentation of it, however, gratifies this reader, who has longed for such an economical treatment and found it, blessedly, here.

He calls his second section Societies and Cultures. Here, Cantor assesses and affirms the lasting contribution of the various cultures from Western antiquity. Sections include Egypt, Ancient Judaism, Athens, Rome, Christian Thought, The Civil Law, and Remembering Antiquity. His discussion ranges over a plenitude of well-thought-out observations, deep and various, unblinking and thought-provoking. These insights run to some length and recapping them here any more deeply than the “35,000-foot” level is just beyond my scope. I’m going to highlight the barest minimum here, to give you an idea.

Egyptian genius found practical engineering solutions to very challenging projects, but was not a creative or embellishing energy. The Hebrews alone in the ancient world practiced a religion without resorting to the “magic” of sacramental miracles or the touching of holy talismans, and this led to distrust and ostracization by other religious groups. What we consider the genius of the Greek world was really Athenian; unsurpassed and foundational achievements in drama, philosophy, mathematics, polity, and architecture flourished for a time only to fall to Persian pressures and competition from nearby city-states. The Roman genius for administration, engineering, and warfare extended its power beyond anything that had come before, but suffered from over-extension and exhaustion before establishing the geographic and economic pattern seen throughout medieval Europe.

Cantor also spends ample time and energy on the very pervasive influences of Christianity and legal codes on the ethical and civic structures that rule the world today. These sections are worth the price of admission by themselves.

The author adeptly balances the sweep of roughly fourteen centuries with the effects on Western culture of a handful of specific over-arching influences. I’m not in a position to judge the relative importance of these influences, so I will leave that to others. I want to point out that this is an admirable book, a concise recap for the intelligent lay person of the civilizations, cultures, and intellectual traditions that shape the West to this day. If you’re interested, it’s hard to imagine a better entry.

"The Seeker of Well-Being" by Indrajit Garai

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Indrajit Garai shows the big heart of a therapist in his guide to living, called “The Seeker of Well-Being.” Full of concrete examples of how to help you learn your true self, and to live in accordance with it, “The Seeker of Well-Being,” is not only a concise guide to Ayurvedic medicine (ancient Indian healing) practices, but to achieving true well-being. This has more soul and more insight than any book I have encountered in a long time. It touched my heart.

“Seeker” does not contain any soft, philosophical observations about our lives and how to lead them.  It leads the reader through easy, practical exercises to arrive at insights into the self - physical, emotional, spiritual. You are then directed to pathways toward aligning your life with your core beliefs and emotional makeup. The author takes us forward, on a straightforward progression from self-discovery through to concrete steps to help us live in accord to our innermost selves.


Garai also uses a large number of case histories to illustrate his points about well-being.  These patients’ stories ring true in our modern way-too-busy world, and we find ourselves reflecting on our own history, our own struggles in a toxic relationship with a job or a partner. He generates good examples in these narratives, of steps forward, and of progress made. Some are touching; all are illuminating. 


Some of the deep concepts propounded by the author: our frailties come from the same source as our qualities; solutions based on metrics outside ourselves (like society’s conventional wisdom) will not work for us long term; our lives will lead to conflict and eventually disease or breakdown if we continue to lead them in ways contrary to our fundamental beliefs.


In some of his exercises Garai leads us toward our fundamental beliefs and core values. These are some of the most compelling passages, where readers will find themselves on  their own journey to their innermost selves. Learn the principal parts of your own physical and emotional makeup. Take steps toward your own innermost fundamental beliefs, and find what you may have been missing. Indrajit Garai will lead you, gently, supportively toward your true self and happiness.

"Betty" by Tiffany McDaniel

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In Tiffany McDaniel’s powerful new novel “Betty,” we become privy to the childhood and coming-of-age of the eponymous character. When very young, she moved around with her family, but they settle finally in the hills of southern Ohio. “Betty” is the story of how this young girl deals with the sins which men commit against the girls and women in their families, and how she rises above them, having acquired wisdom beyond her tender years. By turns homespun and horrific, this novel carries pride, sorrow, love, malice, and the resilient human spirit, and serves them up to the reader in a memorable, beautiful whole. 

Betty is her father’s daughter, through and through. She inherits his dark Cherokee pigment, and he inculcates Native wisdom and understanding in her, particularly as it relates to the significance of the natural world, and how it can heal. Delivered in plain speech and fanciful art, this instruction aligns perfectly with the countrified pallet in which McDaniel paints her tableaux. All dialogue has a rural twang and inflection; and Betty has siblings named Fraya, Trustin, Flossie, and Lint. She suffers racial prejudice in the 1950s and 60s, even to some extent from her mother and sisters, who don’t share her rich coloring. 

Women suffer at the hands of the men in their family throughout the novel; Betty witnesses some of it first-hand, and learns of other episodes from her mother. She rails against not only the cruelty and injustice but also she hates the culture of silence enabling and perpetuating the sin. This pall colors and stains the life of this spirited girl; she can’t stand it, and neither can we. Ultimately, Betty delivers herself, wise to so many ways of the world, from this childhood, and ends up meeting a character from McDaniel’s remarkable first novel, “The Summer That Melted Everything.” One wonders if we will hear more of these characters in the future. 

Stunningly spirited, unbowed by all she has witnessed, loved dearly by her gentle father, Betty is a hard, determined plug of gristle, a take-no-quarter fighter, and at the same time a fond believer in sweet dreams. She befriends some of the town’s castoffs, and learns something of herself in the process. She can’t help her strong subversive streak, and it might just be the thing that saves her. Betty the character will live in your imagination as it will in mine. 

McDaniel has followed up “The Summer That Melted Everything” with a stunning, masterful second effort. In her writing she again shows no fear in displaying all the treachery and predation of her story - she has no mercy and tolerates no nonsense. A little like Betty herself. This author demonstrates a crystal clear vision in this area, and has also shown a very deft hand at drawing characters and family interaction. 

Even while steeped in folklore, this is fine, unflinching work. It rewards its reader with a rich, nuanced, well-paced story, with a very, very sympathetic heroine, all set in a memorable picture of rural American life. I urge you to reap these rewards.

"West With the Night" by Beryl Markham

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The 1942 publication of West With the Night witnessed the arresting arrival of a skilled, wise, worldly storyteller into the public consciousness. Beryl Markham certainly had an interesting story to tell. The British-born girl was moved to British East Africa (later Kenya) in 1906, at the age of four. Living on her father’s farm - something Americans would tend to call a “spread” - she became familiar with horses, agricultural production, and local native tribes. More remarkable, she became active in native hunts, where various tribesmen would bring the teen-ager along to witness the predators and game of East Africa.

And of course on top of all this, she was the first aviator to fly west across the Atlantic, from England to Nova Scotia, where she survived landing under duress in a crippled airplane.

But: West With the Night is so much more than a simple re-telling of a memorable life by an indomitable woman. It’s irrefutable evidence that the gift of telling a story dwells in certain individuals, and cannot be denied. Markham shows a grace, a natural flow, and an undeniable logic in her memoir. She also sprinkles short speculative nuggets throughout, in which she tackles philosophical subjects: life, family, morals, character,  history, politics. And I want to affirm the two essential features of these études: they come just at the moment where they belong for the flow of her narrative, and they  display the deep wisdom, sophistication, and wit of their author. 

The Africa of primal and primeval forces comes alive under her treatment. The safaris, the deadly hazards, natural and human, the paternalism of subjugators, the intimidating fauna, from elephants to insects - all these form the backdrop of Markham’s life. Her willing spirit takes them all on; she suffers a lion’s mauling and a stallion’s pummeling hoof, among much more, and goes on to achieve local and global celebrity as a pioneering aviator. Africa at this transitional time cannot have a clearer guide than this eyewitness.

This memoir is a distinct pleasure, from beginning to end. Read it, and you will take a flight of your own. Its joys are manifold, unflagging and rewarding. Come for a re-telling of a remarkable life; stay for the pure reading pleasure.

"The Book of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber

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A young British Christian minister signs up to spread the Gospel on another planet. The lovely wife he leaves at home is pregnant, as it happens, and must navigate her way through the alarmingly hazardous Earth of the near future. She watches aghast as tsunamis, volcanoes, drought, famine, and genocide devastate more and more of the planet. She waits in vain for rubbish pickup service, becomes injured cleaning up her home after a freak storm, and faces life-threatening conditions at the hospital where she works as a nurse.

Author Michel Faber clearly wanted to make a statement about the 21st-Century state of the planet - he shows it to us from the incomprehensible distance of the planet Oasis, where the minister has gone as a missionary. But the alien planet is so placid and unchanging, and its human complement of staff so phlegmatic and so complying, that barely anything happens there, other than to Peter, the cleric.

The fraying relationship between Peter and his wife Bea forms the core of this story. They send text communications back and forth and through these we watch as the tension mounts. As befits his central theme, Faber handles this progress more subtly and more effectively than anything else in the novel. He sets this against the backdrop of the collapsing, disaster-beset Earth, where human society takes pains to tear itself apart.

A few notes for sci-fi readers: the author describes the alien planet in fairly rudimentary terms, and he invests zero text to the science of inter-galactic travel. His devout aliens have a certain personality, but aside from hinted-at physical weaknesses, do not hold our (my) interest strongly. No, the marriage of Peter and Bea occupies center stage, and their threatened separation focuses the book.

Faber handles this focus well; his strategy of placing millions of light years between them has a certain novelty. It’s difficult for me to develop strong feelings about this novel, so perhaps be guided by that lack.

"Confessions of a Pagan Nun" by Kate Horsley

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Author Kate Horsley dresses up her novel as a codex found on an archeological dig in Ireland. It purports to be a first-person narrative of a woman trained as a druid in early 6th Century Ireland; it even includes a Translator’s Note explicating the scholarly treatment of the text. Horsley establishes this as a way of lending a present-day flavor to a long-ago text. It works really well, and at the same time the story manages to be a compelling text with human suffering, thwarted romance, power-mad clerics, and a deft treatment of how some true stories evolve into legends, embellished with magic.

Gwynneve, our wise and realistic narrator, tells her first-person story of passion, growth, and loss. This serves as a cross-section of the wrenching Irish conversion from the ancient Druidic faith to Christianity. In fact, the story by design straddles the exact period where the Christian faith takes strong root in the land, and succeeds in eradicating all traces of the old ways. But not in our Gwynneve!

This woman trains the full nine years required to become a druid, travels that path, and gains some renown. Her passion, which she discovers quite young, is for reading and writing; she burns to know what the long dead philosophers and seers and poets and clerics said and thought. This leads her to Giannon, a tall and rather unfeeling druid, from whom she finds she desires affection and partnership. He does not provide these in any gratifying amount, but he does teach her the druidic disciplines. Through a series of adventures and misadventures Gwynneve is admitted into a convent devoted to St. Brigit.

At this convent, Druid Gwynneve pursues her love of writing as a scribe, and sets the current manuscript to parchment. Before very long she runs afoul of the new Christian male hierarchy, is imprisoned and martyred. She thus personifies the dying of the old, nature-based beliefs prevalent in Ireland - she couches this often harsh transition in very human terms. In addition, there is a fine and lovely lilt to the writing, as befits something composed in English by an Irish wielder of words.

Straightforward, feeling, well-paced and lovely, there is much here to use your time well. It imagines its time and place thoroughly, much to the delight of the modern reader.

"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

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Upon its 1947 publication Invisible Man became a cultural phenomenon. It’s easy to see why. In it Ralph Ellison produces a novel-length polemic observing and decrying the treatment of blacks in America. A first-person African-American man’s consciousness changes from the accepting subservience (and bootlicking) during his college years to big-city radical political activism, to a disillusioned resignation, through which he finally emerges a thoughtful, perhaps hopeful, individual. It’s a vivid indictment, and required reading for anyone even reflecting casually on race relations in the modern world.

From the outset we witness the shocking prejudice and mistreatment of African- Americans in the Depression-era United States. But because he shows skill in parroting back the “modern” Negro approach of acceptance through good manners and mindfulness-of-his-place, his native Southern town grants him a scholarship to college.

Through no fault of his own, he runs afoul of the college administration and is expelled. After he removes to New York his skill as a speechmaker lands him work in a subversive political organization, where he eventually chafes under the boot-heel of a central committee’s iron discipline. His career there disintegrates during a vivid description of the Harlem riot of 1935.

Of overarching importance: Ellison’s recounting in cringe-worthy detail a broad sample of the degrading stereotypes and rituals white people employed to keep blacks in their “place.” These accrete a weight as the book progresses, and establish the background in which our story takes place. They distill to the razor-sharp tip of Ellison’s spear; he aims this weapon at American race relations and lets fly.

However, in his introduction to the 1981 re-issue, Ellison cites Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and observes “ … that a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.” It’s difficult to find any passages in “Invisible Man” that indicate a course toward the “democratic ideal.”

His invisibility evolves from his withdrawal from all aspects of his world and life. He lives where he can’t be seen, he understands his voice will be ignored by all sectors of society, be they black, white, radical, or reactionary, or any combination. He first encounters the idea of invisibility on the bus between his native South and New York. He is distressed to see the “vet” on the bus, the black onetime doctor and current mental patient who caused him so much trouble at the whorehouse where he found himself one fateful day.

The vet tells him:

Play the game, but don’t believe in it - that much you owe yourself. Even if it lands you in a strait jacket or a padded cell. Play the game, but play it your own way - part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate - I wish I had time to tell you only a fragment. We’re an ass-backward people, though. You might even beat the game. It’s really a very crude affair. … You’re hidden right out in the open - that is, you would be if you only realized it. They wouldn’t see you because they don’t expect you to know anything …”

After affirming in the Epilogue that he is forced into action, and cannot remain invisible, or at least that he can’t remain on the sideline, the narrator says:

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? … There seems to be no escape. … I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some if it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness, I’m a desperate man - but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I renounce and I defend and I hate and I love.”

The author takes pains to describe an outcome, a result of his journey. 

Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge. And there’s still a conflict within me: With Louis Armstrong one half of me says, ‘Open the window and let the foul air out,’ while the other says, ‘It was good green corn before the harvest.’ Of course Louis was kidding, he wouldn’t have thrown old Bad Air out, because it would have broken up the music and the dance, when it was the good music that came from the bell of old Bad Air’s horn that counted.”

So ultimately, Ellison’s narrator finds that love is necessary to telling his story, but that the love will always be mixed, polluted, by rampant hate and repudiation.

As I said, it’s easy to see why this title has risen to such prominence. Angry but wise to the human condition, unforgiving even as it admits to limited hope, “Invisible Man” remains a canonical work illuminating an issue still vexing America today.