One of America’s most gifted novelists projects dark and daring speculations upon the incredible-but-true 19th-century story of a child piano prodigy who was blind, autistic and a slave.
In the waning years of antebellum slavery, a rapidly fracturing America was introduced to a stunning musical phenomenon: Thomas Wiggins, a young black slave from Georgia known only as “Blind Tom,” who “sounded out” his first piano composition at age 5 and, five years later, was famous enough to play before President James Buchanan at the White House. What made Tom even more remarkable was that he was both blind and autistic, thus compounding audiences’ astonishment at his extraordinary ability to not only perform classical works, but to spontaneously weave startling variations on American folk ditties into original musical tapestries. Because most of the details of Wiggins' story have been lost to history, there are many blank, enigmatic spaces to fill. Chicago-born Allen (Holding Pattern, 2008, etc.) assumes the imaginative writer’s task of improvising shape and depth where elusive or missing facts should be. What results from his effort is an absorbing, haunting narrative that begins a year after the Civil War ends when Tom, a teenager, and his white guardian, Eliza Bethune, arrive in a nameless northern city (presumably New York), where they are contacted by a black man who intends to reunite Tom with his newly liberated mother. The story rebounds back to Tom’s childhood, during which he struggles to feel his surroundings despite his compromised senses and finds his only warmth (literally) beneath the piano belonging to Eliza’s slaveholding family. Allen’s psychological insight and evocative language vividly bring to life all the black and white people in Tom’s life who, in seeking to understand or exploit Tom’s unholy gifts, are both transformed and transfixed by his inscrutable, resolutely self-contained personality.
If there’s any justice, Allen’s visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject’s performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.