Beetlecreek, 1950 (also published as Act of Outrage, 1955)
The Catacombs, 1965
Love Story Black, 1978
William Demby spent his formative years in the small coal-mining town of Clarksburg, West Virginia, where his father William worked for the Standard Oil Company. Clarksburg served as a model for Beetlecreek, the fictional town of Demby’s first novel. It would, however, take a liberation from both his hometown and his country to establish Demby as a writer. It was while Demby attended West Virginia State College that the interruption of World War II and service in the United States Army provided that liberation. The Army stationed him in Italy, a country which was to become a major influence on his life and art: Living in Italy allowed him the distance from which to examine his American and African American heritage, it provided subject matter for his writing, and it gave him the opportunity to work in the film industry. While in the Army, Demby wrote for Stars and Stripes; he continued his writing at Fisk University in Tennessee after the war, also exercising his latent talent as an artist by designing the college magazine for which he wrote.
Leaving Fisk, Demby returned to Italy, where he made his living by writing for the Italian film and television industries. He married an Italian woman, Lucia Drudi, and they had a son, James. His first novel, Beetlecreek (also published under the title Act of Outrage), was published while he lived in Rome. Like most first works by expatriates, it examines an American setting: three characters–an adolescent, an adult, and an old man–try but fail to escape their alienation and loneliness. The stagnant small town they inhabit (a town in which both the black and white communities are small-minded) proves too deep a quagmire to escape. This existential theme is characteristic of Demby’s other published novels; they all contain alienated characters who must wrest meaning and self-definition from the choices of each moment. His novels also ravish the mind’s eye; striking visual imagery carries much of the novels’ thematic “weight.”
Demby’s artistic training and film work also seem to influence his choice of a montage technique of novel construction reminiscent of John Dos Passos, best seen in his second novel, The Catacombs. In this interesting experimental novel, real-life events and people jostle fictional characters, all juxtaposed to present a simultaneous, fish-eye-lens view of life. The protagonist, an expatriate novelist named William Demby, is writing a novel about an expatriate black actress playing a bit part in the huge production of Cleopatra being filmed in Rome. The Roman catacombs, where the novel ends, serve as a metaphor of the labyrinthine search for real human connection and community. By the time The Catacombs was published, Demby had moved back to the United States, working first in advertising and later, from 1969-1989, as a teacher at New York City’s College of Staten Island.
William Demby is a slow, careful writer. Fifteen years passed between publication of his first novel and his second; thirteen years after the second novel was published, his third novel, Love Story Black, appeared. In this novel, a black former expatriate novelist teaching in a New York City college prepares a magazine article about an elderly black female entertainer. As he interviews the entertainer and develops a relationship with his female research assistant, he learns about life and love. Once again Demby uses his own experience, combined with an entirely imagined situation, to fashion an intricate mirror world.
Demby’s critical reception has been mixed. Beetlecreek received generally positive reviews, The Catacombs received mixed reviews, and Love Story Black did not receive much attention at all. However, Demby has a solid place in any listing of important African American writers, and some critics believe that his demanding experimental style would have received wider and more positive attention had he not been black. Demby, however, is not especially concerned with his critical reception. Critics, he feels, are reviewing his work from a cultural perspective that is different from his own. Demby has started at least two other novels–one autobiographical, the other about a black revolutionary of the 1960’s and 1970’s–that he either aborted or suspended. Regardless of critical opinion, William Demby continues to march to his own drummer at his own pace.