Placing a black conservative born into the civil-rights aristocracy at the center of her new novel, Randall (Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, 2004, etc.) explores race in contemporary America.
Abel Jones Jr. is the descendant of activists and artists who fought for African-American dignity and forged comfortable communities for themselves in the midcentury South. Abel dies in the men’s room of the Rebel Yell dinner theater while his white second wife, a one-time country singer, and their children watch actors in gray uniforms reenact the Confederacy’s most glorious moments. As she surveys the high-ranking Pentagon officials and Republican luminaries who assemble for his funeral, Abel’s black first wife, Hope, feels compelled to understand how the man she once loved turned into a self-hating African-American and a darling of the neocon movement. (Abel seems to be an amalgam of Colin Powell and Alberto Gonzales, while another character is clearly based on Condoleezza Rice.) Hope’s search for answers gives this narrative shape, and the author is adept at depicting the complex interactions among races, classes and generations. When Abel’s wife rejects the baked goods and casseroles offered by black Nashville’s matriarchs in favor of a catered buffet—Thai, no less—for Abel’s wake, the reader learns just about everything there is to know about where Abel came from and where he ended up. Unfortunately, Randall is not always so discerning; she devotes an entire paragraph, for example, to her protagonist’s bathroom décor, preferred toothbrush and choice of washcloth. Such pointless details, indulged in again and again, distract from the central, essential mystery: Who was Abel Jones Jr.?
An intriguing premise poorly executed.