By: Carole Ann Borges
REVIEW: The Ali Files/ On the Town with Ali Akbar
Bill McGowan, author
Celtic Cat, publisher
$12.00 soft cover
Bill McGowan’s book The Ali Files is about his friendship with the late Horace Pittman (aka Ali Akbar), a local artist/poet who will be familiar to many Knoxvillians who have traveled in the sometimes shadowy, sometimes illuminated art world of our still scruffy, post-World’s Fair city.
Back in the day when race created strict boundaries and straight vs beat meant you were running the rat race or jiving on whatever blew your mind and uplifted your soul, Ali Akbar was dancing off the map and into the hearts of everyone who knew him.
In an email sent to the author, Ali’s enthusiasm for life and art is apparent. He says, “Keep up your writings man, that’s your ART FORM!!! You are out there, in the field man, down in the trenches dude!!! Get the WORD for us and bring it back….”
For this talented black man unable to restrain himself from embracing life with a bear hug, a jug of wine, and a puff of weed, it meant living a life of danger and excitement. After serving a stint in Vietnam, Ali finds Rock Hill, South Carolina, his hometown, too stifling, so he goes to live with an uncle in New Jersey.
“My uncle dressed well,” he says, “and I saw the effect this had on everyone, particularly the ladies. So I went to this men’s clothing shop in the ‘hood and I bought a nice suit. Fitted! Red! That night I hit the clubs in my suit and a nice hat too. Wow! I felt like the MAN! I could feel the effect immediately. It gave me confidence, and I played it for all it was worth!”
Not only does young Ali’s fashion sense improve during this stint, but also his legendary storytelling ability grows.
McGowan says, “I had the benefit of hearing this story twice. Ali told it to me once, and then I got to hear him tell it to an unknown couple that we invited to sit at our table in some bar a few years later. I realized with the second telling that Ali had refined this story over the years to achieve maximum effect.”
In one of the most delightful sketches in this slim volume, Akbar ends up coming home drunk and falls into his uncle’s bed. The hot babe his uncle lives with comes in dead tired. In the dark she slides in beside Akbar. He is just about ready to take full advantage of the situation when his uncle shows up and yells, “Hey where is everybody?”
Bill McGowan’s book takes us on a journey that, like Cormack McCarthy’s Sutree or Charles Bukowski’s poems, gives us a peep into American life that won’t be found in any history book. You will laugh at the romantic antics and drunken revelries of these two men, but your heart will break when you realize just how hard life was for an outgoing, exuberant man like Horace Pittman in a world full of boundaries begging to be broken.
The stories in this book told mostly in Ali Akabar’s own words are raw but also beautiful and authentically human. Not everyone will embrace the street language or the lustful machismo that drives the stories, but they are real, and McGowan creates an authentic intimacy that is reminiscent of the kind of conversations one might overhear when a group of artistic locals start swapping stories around a fire pit in a backyard scented with honeysuckle and surrounded by kudzu. If you dig that kind of privilege, you will love this book.
© Carole Ann Borges, 2015.