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Haarlem
Cover of Haarlem
Haarlem
A Novel
“The only thing that’ll last forever is my Thirst . . . .”

So says Abel Crofton as he explores the streets and canals of Amsterdam. A New York tunnel worker who’s struggling to stay sober after years of alcoholism, Abel is searching for the mother he’s never known. Despite having few clues as to her whereabouts, he soon finds a bureaucratic trail that takes him to Haarlem, the Dutch town from which the famed African-American neighborhood takes its name.

As Abel ventures into more new territory, he also takes on his identity as a Black man, his rough childhood in Harlem, New York, his relationship to his bitter father, and his battle with addiction. The questions around his life only get more complicated after he meets a coldly direct waitress and a ragged jazz musician, both also bearing major scars from their pasts. The road leads to Haarlem for them as well.

Welcome to Abel’s search for salvation in another tight page turner from Heather Neff.
“The only thing that’ll last forever is my Thirst . . . .”

So says Abel Crofton as he explores the streets and canals of Amsterdam. A New York tunnel worker who’s struggling to stay sober after years of alcoholism, Abel is searching for the mother he’s never known. Despite having few clues as to her whereabouts, he soon finds a bureaucratic trail that takes him to Haarlem, the Dutch town from which the famed African-American neighborhood takes its name.

As Abel ventures into more new territory, he also takes on his identity as a Black man, his rough childhood in Harlem, New York, his relationship to his bitter father, and his battle with addiction. The questions around his life only get more complicated after he meets a coldly direct waitress and a ragged jazz musician, both also bearing major scars from their pasts. The road leads to Haarlem for them as well.

Welcome to Abel’s search for salvation in another tight page turner from Heather Neff.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One One

    CRASH LANDING

    If she'd loved me, she wouldn't have named me Abel."

    "What do you mean?"

    "I mean that nobody in their right mind needs to be named after a sheep boy."

    "I kinda like it. Reminds me of Honest Abe."

    "Naw, man. That comes from Abraham. Abel is that nobody with nothing to think about except cutting up dumb animals to please that invisible white man in the sky. 'Please, Mister Lord—please accept my humble offering.' Then crack! He gets beat down by his own brother. Jeesus. I might as well be named Clark Kent. Or Moby-Dick. Or Pinocchio."

    "No way, buddy. Abel is a guy who gets things done. Like, he's cap-able. He's got abil-ity. He's able-minded."

    "Or maybe he's just disabled!"

    "Look, man, you need to cut yourself a little slack."

    "Why is that, Serge? Nobody else ever did—"

    Sweet Jesus! I hate planes. Can't smoke. Can't stand the food. Can't sleep. So there's nothing to do but think. Think about conversations that lead to nothing, to questions that'll never be answered. Or about things that need to be buried deep down beneath the earth.

    Buried with my not-soon-enough forgotten past.

    Buried with my loving father.

    And with my Thirst.

    My seat above the wing was too damn noisy to let me get any shut-eye. Every time I tried to let myself go, a crash from the galley or a lurch of turbulence would slap me back to reality. Who knew what was going on back there? Could be some asshole with a box cutter or a bomb in his shoe.

    Stomach turning over, I stared up the aisle at the passengers' drooping heads until my eyes fastened on the flight attendant's ass, appearing and disappearing behind the first-class curtain. Well, at least that was a nice little show.

    I was aching for one of those palm-sized gin bottles and a Newport.

    "No shit," I thought, continuing my imaginary conversation with Serge. "If she hadn't given me this stupid name I wouldn't even be on this goddamn plane. Wouldn't have spent that couple of bricks left over from the funeral to buy a ticket to a place where I know I don't need to go. Wouldn't be using up my hard-earned vacation looking for a woman who doesn't even care if I'm alive."

    "You got something better to do?"

    "You damn straight! I should be in Vegas this very minute sitting by a roulette wheel."

    "Come on, Abe. You don't know a goddamn thing about gambling!"

    "I might have a hidden talent. Might turn out to be a crack at the tables."

    "A crackhead, more likely."

    "Might even strike it rich!"

    "And then what?"

    "No more stinking tunnels, man. No more busted cables at four a.m. No—I'd just take my ass to a bamboo hut in the Bahamas and never be seen again."

    "The Bahamas? Oh, please! You hate fishing, you can't swim and you sure as hell don't need a tan."

    "So I'd write my book, Serge. Write from sunrise to sunset, live off mangoes and papayas and let the paper make some sense out of my goddamn life."

    "That's crazy, Abe. How're you gonna live without your daily dose of Miles?"

    "I'd just get me some steel drums and teach the natives how to play them Harlem-style."

    I tried to imagine myself, naked and dreadlocked, surrounded by West Indian beauties in my thatched...
About the Author-
  • HEATHER NEFF is a professor of literature of the African diaspora and the author of the novels Blackgammon, Wisdom, and Accident of Birth (Harlem Moon).
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from June 13, 2005
    Abel Paulus Crofton, the biracial son of an abusive, alcoholic saxophonist and a Dutch mother he never knew, confronts his past in a journey from Harlem, N.Y., to the neighborhood's titular Dutch namesake in Neff's compelling fourth novel (after Blackgammon
    ). Like his father, 45-year-old Crofton, a New York City subway tunnel worker, battles what he calls "The Thirst," but has spent 12 years sober with the help of his friend and sponsor, Serge. Crofton's alcoholism is both a symptom of a childhood virtually devoid of love (save the nurturing of his paternal grandmother) and a cause of a reckless, promiscuous adulthood without meaningful human connection. When his father dies at the novel's start, Crofton sets off for the Netherlands in search of his mother armed only with her name, Justina van Gelder, and a desire to make peace with himself. In Amsterdam, he meets Sophie, a strong but tender recovering addict who makes him do the hard work of introspection and accompanies him on his quest for family, including not only his mother but a long-lost brother, too. Neff's gift for snappy dialogue propels this poignant book about hope: for love's redeeming power, the ability to forgive and the gift of second chances.

  • Library Journal

    July 15, 2005
    Abel, a man of African American and Dutch descent, has spent his whole life in the famed New York City neighborhood of Harlem. He has always had a tumultuous relationship with his jazz-playing alcoholic father and bad luck with women. When his father dies, Abel decides to go to Holland to find the Dutch mother he never knew. Along the way, Abel meets Sophie, a Dutch Caribbean waitress who shares similar experiences, and learns family secrets that are so terrible that he nearly risks his 12 years of sobriety to deal with them. Upon his arrival in the Dutch town of Haarlem, Abel is welcomed by the locals as a Dutchman who happens to be black, which helps him become more open to the idea that not all white people are racist. In her latest novel (after "Accident of Birth"), Neff portrays a man trying to come to grips with his destructive past in order to live a better future; she also depicts the many complexities of life in Europe for people of color. Additionally, Neff makes the issue of an interracial couple seem as normal as any union. Well crafted and uplifting, this is recommended for most fiction collections. -Leslie Hayden, Univ. of Pittsburgh Lib.

    Copyright 2005 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    June 1, 2005
    Abel Crofton at 45 years old lives a harsh and lonely life in Harlem, working underground for the electric company and struggling daily with the Thirst. His AA sponsor is his only true friend. Abel is bitterly estranged from his abusive father, an erratic jazz musician, and his father's death frees Abel to travels to Haarlem in the Netherlands in search of the mother he's never known. He finds that the city from which his beloved Harlem gets its name has its own allure. Abel also discovers a family past rife with violence and abuse visited by his musically talented but bitterly frustrated father against his Dutch mother. And he finds Sophie, a beautiful Dutch-Caribbean woman, who is struggling with her own troubled past and fight to stay sober. The two of them slowly reveal to themselves and to each other the secrets in both their lives as Sophie helps Abel to negotiate the dangerous underbelly of her Haarlem in solving the mystery of why Abel's father ultimately fled for the Harlem of America.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2005, American Library Association.)

  • Ernesto Quiñonez, author of Bodega Dreams and Chango's Fire

    "Heather Neff's voice is blessed with a sustained and beautiful triumph of truth that cries out with anguish, anger, and love for a people and place. Haarlem sings so saintly that somewhere James Baldwin is smiling."

  • Ian Smith, M.D., author of The Blackbird Papers "With Haarlem, Heather Neff takes on a male voice and gives us a riveting look into the mind of a character who convincingly comes to grips with his fractured life. This is a book you won't put down easily."
  • Black Issues Book Review "A writer with depth, a sense of place, and a profound understanding of the human mind."
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A Novel
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