Ronald L. Fair
(b. 1932), novelist, short story writer, and poet.
Born in Chicago in 1932, Ronald L. Fair began writing as a teenager. After graduating from public school in Chicago, Fair spent three years in the U.S. Navy (1950–1953) before attending a Chicago stenotype school for two years. While supporting himself as a court reporter and stenographer for the next decade (1955–1966), he produced his first two novels. After then working briefly as an encyclopedia writer, Fair taught for a few years—at Columbia College (1967–1968), Northwestern University (1968), and Wesleyan University (1969–1970). Fair moved to Finland in 1971 and has lived in Europe since that time. He is divorced and has three children.
Ronald Fair's first novel, Many Thousand Gone: An American Fable (1965), both fantastic tale and “protest novel,” is a satiric re-vision of the South, where, in the mythical Jacobs County, slaves were never freed after the Civil War. Exploring the twin themes of the sexual exploitation of women and the lynching of men from the African American community, the novel concludes with a messianic-like hope rooted in racial purity and revolutionary resistance.
In Hog Butcher (1966), the author's critique of racism and hypocrisy turns to the North. Set in Chicago's South Side ghetto, and drawing on Fair's experience as a court reporter, the novel centers on the police shooting of a young African American sports hero-to-be and the trial and cover-up that ensue.
Fair's third major work of fiction, World of Nothing (1970), is a pair of novellas. Jerome, his most experimental piece, revisits the fantasy genre to explore religious hypocrisy. The second novella, World of Nothing, consists of a series of bittersweet episodic sketches related by an anonymous first-person narrator.
We Can't Breathe, published in 1972, after Fair had departed for Europe, is about growing up in 1930s Chicago and is his most autobiographical and documentary work. Versions of the prologue have been frequently anthologized, as have other Fair short stories.
Fair's fiction has generally met with mixed reviews. While he has received praise for his naturalistic accounts in particular, critics have accused his works, variously, of stereotype, weak dialogue, cliché, and a lack of aesthetic unity. Despite the lukewarm critical response, Hog Butcher was eventually made into a feature film and reissued as a mass-market paperback, Cornbread, Earl, and Me in 1975. Fair also received an award for World of Nothing from the National Endowment of Letters in 1971 and a Best Book Award from the American Library Association for We Can't Breathe in 1972.
During his self-imposed exile, which began during the decline of the Black Arts movement in America, Fair has continued to explore the settings and themes of his earlier work but primarily through poetry. In addition to contributing to various periodicals, he has published two volumes of poetry: Excerpts (London, 1975) and Rufus (Germany, 1977; United States, 1980). Fair also received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1974 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975.
Ronald L. Fair's most significant contribution to African American literature has perhaps been the versatility and inventive synthesis of forms with which he has explored communal themes, human types, and the workings and abuses of power.