The lives of black Americans, shadowed by the surreal and shot through with violence, are the focus in these ten stories from poet and novelist Allen (Rails Under My Back, 2000).
Violence erupts in the third sentence of “Same,” when Glory Hope Lincoln severs her husband’s penis in revenge for his “wandering eye,” an act inspired by Jesus, “the only white man she liked.” The story is about her son Lincoln Roosevelt Lincoln, who has inherited his father’s sex drive and his mother’s determination in planning the seduction of a grieving widow; she and her husband had been fans of Lincoln’s hugely successful war-porn novels. The story shows Allen’s strengths and weaknesses: It’s compellingly readable yet wildly undisciplined, with a messy ending. Violence is also the backdrop to Lee Christmas’s life in “Shimmy.” Back in Mississippi, before Lee moved north and made his fortune, his mother, a devout Christian, murdered his abusive father before killing herself. Up north Lee encounters the paranormal, a ghost making love to his wife. Later, in another messy ending, the hitherto powerful Lee is bested by the psychic power of a seven-year-old midget. In the title story, the power belongs to the white cops who bust a black turnstile-jumper; there’s a too-long wait before the sight of a prisoner with wings marks a sharp turn to the surreal, while in the muddled “The Green Apocalypse” the power belongs to a demonic teenager. The other memorable stories are “Bread and the Land” (a child tries to figure out adult duplicity) and “The Near Remote” (police superintendent and unhelpful civilian witness in a power struggle). All these stories are spiced up by terrific dialogue: Allen would make a fine playwright. Only in “Mississippi Story” is the dialogue deliberately bland, to contrast with an unresolved racial fury pulsing beneath the surface.
A striking talent ill at ease with the short-story form.