A Spiros Antonapoulos
Antonapoulos is the person that John Singer cares most about in the world, even though there is little evidence that he returned Singer’s affection. The book’s first chapter concentrates on their ten years of life together and how Antonapoulos behaved more and more badly as years passed-stealing from the restaurant, urinating in public, pushing people around-until his only relative, Charles Parker, has him committed to an insane asylum. Throughout the rest of the book Singer pines for his friend’s companionship, even though most of his memories of him seem to involve Antonapoulos drinking or stealing money or in some other way taking advantage of his friendship.
B Jake Blount
People in the town fear and mock Jake Blount because his behavior is wildly uneven, symbolized by the two sets of clothes that he owns: the white linen suit that he arrived in town wearing, and the filthy overalls that he wore for the twelve days following, during which he remained drunk. Blount is an educated and compassionate man, concerned about social equality and willing to fight for the rights of anybody, but his enthusiasm is tainted by the fact that he is so drunk most of the time that his anger and symbolic gestures appear to be just foolishness. The first time he meets Dr. Copeland, for instance, he is drunk and drags the doctor into the cafe, in defiance of the segregationist rules that forbade a black man from drinking in a white establishment: from the doctor’s perspective, though, he had come expecting a medical emergency and the drunk who had him by the arm instead tried to buy him a drink. Before he left Biff saw him turn on Blount with “a look of quivering hatred.” After sobering up, Blount takes a job as a mechanic at a carnival, working on the carousel, or “flying-jinny.” He is well-educated in the literature of social revolution and Marxism, and when he visits Singer’s room he brings liquor and talks most of the night about the things he would like to do to liberate the working class. Given the choice of living during any time in history, he tells Biff, he would live in 1775, presumably so that he could participate in the American Revolution. When he hears about Willie Copeland’s mutilation in prison, Blount insists that Singer take him to see Willie, saying that he can help. While there he tells a long, complex story about the labor struggle and the ownership of factories, but it ends with him fighting with the doctor until they end up slinging racial slurs at each other. He writes out theories and treatises and manifestos, with titles like “The Affinity Between Our Democracy and Fascism,” and distributes them around town. After Singer commits suicide, Blount feels empty and betrayed, and then a calamity happens: after all of his work toward racial understanding, he takes place in a riot between blacks and whites at the carnival. He decides to leave town, and is last seen walking through the cramped, rotting tenements on the outskirts of town: “There was one thing clear. There was hope in him, and soon perhaps the outline of his journey would take form.”
C Biff Brannon
Brannon is the calmest and most content character in the novel, although not in the beginning. At the start of the novel, Brannon works hard to run the New York Cafe and keep it open day and night. He does not appear to have a very good relationship with his wife of twenty-one years, Alice. They are seldom together because she sleeps while he works and he sleeps while she works, and when they are together they argue about how he treats the customers; she feels that he gives too much food and liquor away to strange people like Blount. “I like freaks,” he explains. “I just reckon you certainly ought to, Mister Brannon,” she replies, “being as you’re one yourself.” Later, thinking about that conversation, Biff thinks about his “special friendly feeling for sick people and cripples,” and accepts it with neither pride nor disdain. As the novel develops, it becomes evident that Biff himself is androgynous, that he feels that he is part male and part female, which explains his disinterest in sleeping with Alice. He is a big, brutish man who wears his mother’s wedding ring on his smallest finger, wears perfume, and arranges decorative baskets “with an eye for color and design.” When his sister comes by with her daughter, she tells Biff, “Bartholomew, you’d make a mighty good mother,” and he thanks her for the compliment. Locked in his cellar, Biff thinks about how nice it would be to adopt two children, a boy and a girl, but he does not dream of raising them with anyone else. Elsewhere in the book Biff reflects on “the part of him that sometimes wished he was a mother and that Mick and Baby were his kids.” Writing to his friend, Singer expresses the opinion that Biff “is not like the others…. He watches. The others all have something they hate. And they all have something they love more than eating or sleeping or friendly company.” Critics have suggested that it is Brannon, not Singer, who is the religious center of this novel because he lives by principles of love and acceptance. Like the rest, he is upset by Singer’s death, and the novel ends with him sitting in the New York Cafe, keeping his mind occupied with crossword puzzles and flower arrangements, waiting for customers.
D Doctor Benedict Copeland
Doctor Copeland is a black man raised in the South but educated in the North, so he sees the disgrace of the racism in the town better than anyone. He is respected by his patients, many of whom have named their children after him, but he has little respect for them. He feels that most of the people in town, his own children included, are allowing themselves to be taken advantage of, and he frowns upon gestures, even those made in friendship, that make his race look lazy or weak. The doctor has trouble relating with people. When his daughter tells him that the way he talks to people hurts their feelings, he says, “I am not interested in subterfuges. I am only interested in the truth.” At a family reunion he sits by himself, sulking and grumbling and embarrassed that his father-in-law describes God’s face as “a large white man’s face with a white beard and blue eyes.” Doctor Copeland feels more involved with books than with people. He reads Spinoza and Thorstein Veblen and Karl Marx, whom he named one of his sons after (the son goes by the name “Buddy,” just as the son he calls William goes by “Willie”). When Willie is tortured in jail and his feet have to be amputated, Dr. Copeland goes to see a judge he knows, but he is stopped in the hall of the courthouse by a deputy sheriff who insults him, accuses him of being drunk, beats him and arrests him, throwing him in a cell with the very lower-class blacks that he has spent his lifetime avoiding. Upon his release and after a long night of drinking and talking with Jake Blount, Dr. Copeland and Jake start planning ways to make people aware of society’s injustices. Dr. Copeland is impatient with Jake’s plan, which would take a long time, and demands that violent meetings in the street are in order. The two argue, and their discussion about promoting racial harmony dissolves into racial insults. In the end, Dr. Copeland, too sick with tuberculosis to care for himself, is taken off to his father-in-law’s farm, riding in a wagon piled high with his possessions (his other option was to ride on his son’s lap), feeling that his mission is uncompleted and still hungry for justice.
E Willie Copeland
Willie is the cook at the New York Cafe, and as such is familiar with all of the main characters. His father is Dr. Benedict Copeland and his sister is Portia. One night, when Willie and his brother-in-law Highboy are drinking at a place called Madame Reba’s Palace of Sweet Pleasure, he dances with a girl whose boyfriend starts a fight with him. Defending himself with a razor, he cuts the other man badly and is sent to prison for nine months. In prison, Willie is locked in a freezing shed and hung by his feet from a rope, and after three days he contracts gangrene and must have his feet amputated.
F Portia Jones
Portia is the daughter of Dr. Copeland, the only one of his four children who visits with him-the other three, all boys, are constantly reminded of his disappointment with them because he wanted them to be a scientist, a teacher, and a lawyer, to help their race. Portia’s husband is Highboy, and the two of them live with and spend their time with her brother, Willie: as Portia explains it to her father, “You see-us have our own way of living and our own plan. Highboy-he pay the rent. I buys all the food out of my money. And Willie-he tends to all of our church dues, insurance, lodge dues and Saturday Night. Us three haves our own plan and each one of us does our parts.” Portia is also the housekeeper at the Kelly boarding house, and Mick sometimes explains her troubles to her. When Willie is sent away to prison, Portia writes to him dutifully, and when he comes back crippled she is distraught, but unlike her father she does not believe that there is a way to demand justice.
G Bubber Kelly
Early in the novel Bubber is the little brother who tags around after Mick all day long throughout the summer. One day, when another boy from the neighborhood brings over a rifle that his recently deceased father left him, Bubber takes the rifle and points it at a neighbor girl and, after mentioning several times how cute and pretty she looks, fires the gun. The major separation between Bubber and Mick comes when she goes to his hiding place and, to teach him a lesson, tells him that the police will arrest him: “They got electric chairs there-just your size. And when they turn on the juice you fry up just like a piece of burnt bacon. Then you go to Hell.” This frightens Bubber more than expected, and his feelings change, so that he is aloof to her. After the shooting incident, he is not known as Bubber anymore, but goes by his given name, George.
H Mick Kelly
Mick is the character who is most like the author, growing up in a Southern town during the course of the novel. When she is first introduced, in the long chapter that brings all of the characters into the cafe, she is a “gangling, towheaded youngster, a girl of about twelve … dressed in khaki shorts and, a blue shirt, and tennis shoes-so that at first glance she was like a very young boy.” “I’d rather be a boy any day,” she tells her older sister who criticizes her clothes. In contrast to this childish image is the fact that Mick has come to the cafe to purchase cigarettes. During the summer days, Mick is responsible for her younger brothers, Bubber and Ralph, and is constantly with them. Ralph is so young that he should be wheeled through town in a carriage or a stroller, but since the Kelly family is poor, they can afford neither, so Mick ties him down in an old wagon so that he won’t fall out. Mick is fascinated with music, stopping when she hears a radio playing in a room in the boarding house or while passing someone’s home, so interested that she knows exactly which yard to go to to hear music in a time of emotional distress. Early in the novel, Mick is trying to make her own violin with a broken, plastered ukulele body, a violin bridge, and strings from a violin, a guitar and a banjo; when her older brother Bill, whom she looks up to, tells her that it will not work she gives up in frustration. Although Mick does not have a wide circle of friends, due largely to her family responsibilities, she is also not a social outcast: when she throws a party for her new classmates at the technical school, wearing a dress and makeup for the first time to assert her sophistication, it is a reasonable success. She ends up disappointed, because the dirty, scruffy neighborhood kids whom she is trying to leave in her past come to the party and mingle with her new friends. Like the other major characters in the book, Mick goes to Singer’s room to talk out her problems-he has a radio in his room, although he cannot hear it, and she listens to it when she visits. At the end, she has to give up her dream of studying for a career in music to take a job at Woolworth’s. After Singer’s death, she realizes that this job is not temporary, that it marks a change in her personality: “But now no music was in her mind. It was like she was shut out from the inside room…. It was like she was too tense. Or maybe because it was like the store took all her energy and time.” She tries to convince herself that she will return to music, but ends up repeating it and repeating it unconvincingly.
I Harry Minowitz
Harry grew up next door to the Kelly boarding house, and while he is in vocational school he takes a job at the cafe. One summer afternoon, he and Mick go swimming, and the event progresses into a sexual encounter. Afterward, rather than going home, he tells Mick that he is leaving town because “If I stayed home mother could read this in my eyes.” Mick discovers that he actually did leave later in the evening, when Mrs. Minowitz phones and asks where he is.
A sidewalk preacher who captures Jake Blount’s attention and acts as his conscience, Simms offers to help Jake find religion, but he backs away when he sees the scar that Jake has given himself by driving a nail through his hand. As Jake leaves, Simms shouts at him that he is a blasphemer, and that God will get him. Later, when Jake is distraught about Singer’s death, he goes to Simms and offers to bring interested people into Simms’s religious meeting by drawing pictures of “some good-looking naked floozies” on the sidewalk, leading them to him. Simms is outraged and shouts curses at Jake, not forgetting to tell him to come back at “seven-fifteen sharp” to hear God’s message.
K John Singer
Singer is not the central character in the novel, although he is the central figure in the lives of the other characters. Being deaf and mute, he is forced to watch people carefully when they talk, and that concentration, combined with the fact that they can talk freely with him without fear of being interrupted, gives them the impression that he really understands them and cares about them. In fact, the only person Singer really cares about is the Greek Antonapoulos, another deaf-mute who lived with Singer for ten years and never showed any sign of understanding him any more that Singer understands Mick, Dr. Copeland, Blount, or Brannon when they talk about their lives. Singer spends his life’s savings to cover up for the petty thievery and destruction that Antonapoulos causes, and when his friend is sent away to a mental institution he is so lonely that he moves into the Kelly boarding house, because “he could no longer stand the rooms where Antonapoulos had lived.” None of his friends in town know about Antonapoulos, and when Singer takes his vacation time to visit him at the asylum, the others are anxious for his return. Singer’s reaction to this attention is conveyed in a letter that he sends to the Greek in which he discusses them all. “They are all very busy people,” he explains. “I do not mean that they work at their jobs all day and night but that they have much business in their minds that does not let them rest.” The letter goes on to explain that he does not enjoy their company, as each of them thinks, but that he has feelings ranging from slight approval of Mick (“She likes music. I wish I knew what it is she hears.”) to disgust with Blount (“The one with the moustache I think is crazy.”) At the end of the letter about their obsessions he, without irony, goes into his own obsession, stating exactly how many days it has been since he and Antonapoulos were together: “All of that time I have been alone without you. The only thing I can imagine is when I will be with you again.” When Singer goes to visit his friend and finds out that he has died, he wanders around in a stupor for half a day, then takes a pistol from the jewelry shop he works at and commits suicide.