Stories that borrow from American folklore, history, and a plethora of literary sources to forge fantasy worlds that are intimately familiar.
Duncan (The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories, 2012, etc.) reasserts his down-home voice in this new collection of Southern fabulist tales. Often told in the first person, the stories tease the reader with echoes of historical fact and biography that slowly unfold into sociopolitical commentary. In some tales, this cultural consciousness is overt. The title story, for example, sees an actual agent of Thomas More’s fictional Utopia infiltrating 16th-century London in an attempt to rescue More from the Tower. When her mission fails, she becomes haunted by the profane voice of More’s severed head and stays in England in an attempt to find the freedom offered by an imperfect society. Along the same lines, “Senator Bilbo” finds the many-times-great-grandson of Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins a powerful political figure in the Shire advancing his agenda of racial purity in the face of a globalizing Middle-earth. Other stories flirt more subtly with their themes. In “Zora and the Zombie,” a fictionalized Zora Neale Hurston explores both the power and vulnerability of her femininity while researching her real-life ethnographic study of Haitian voodoo practices. In “Beluthahatchie,” the African-American trickster character High John the Conqueror is blended with the scarcely less mythic personality of bluesman Robert Johnson to explore the dynamics of institutionalized racial oppression and resistance in hell. As lofty as Duncan’s goals can sometimes be, the tenderness, humor, and sheer gumption of his voices make the collection both winsome and engaging. Of note, however, is the fact that the author uses racially insensitive language which, while historically accurate and appropriate to the voices of his characters, is not his to speak. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Duncan's use of African-American folk forms and the stories' firm championing of the oppressed justify the employment of language that lands so harshly on the ear. Occasionally, the author loses his way in the maze of his references, and the stories suffer from a tendency to ramble, but even the most gabby of these tales has the power to startle the reader into realizations about their own time and place that are only possible when seen through the lens of make-believe.
A rare book that blends fun with fury and tomfoolery with social consciousness.