RAILS UNDER MY BACK by Jeffrey Renard Allen


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A powerful first novel that uses the railroad as a complex metaphor—of hopeful reunion but also of separation and dispersal—in telling the multi-generational stories of two closely related black American families. Brothers John and Lucius (“Lucifer”) Jones marry sisters Gracie and Sheila McShan, and both couples settle in an unnamed fictional big city that’s an imaginative amalgam of New York and Chicago. In a vigorous, jazzy, stop-and-start style that deftly mixes crisp declarative sentences with fragmented dialogue and vigorous expostulations (and that intercuts present and past scenes with brief spasmodic flashbacks), Allen dramatizes both the sources (their families’ histories) and the consequences (their children’s fates) of the separate paths the Jones brothers follow (“Lucifer and John, brothers in the skin, but no closeness”). The novel both begins and comes to a climax with the streetwise “business” that engulfs Gracie and John’s embittered teenaged son Jesus, whose temperament contrasts (as do his father’s and uncle’s) revealingly with that of his cousin Hatch, a soulful youngster bent on becoming a blues musician. The bulk of the story stretches forward and backward (often without helpful transitions, but always bursting quickly into vivid clarity) to focus on various members of the two families’ several generations. Most compelling are: stern matriarch Lulu Mae McShan; hardworking, stoical Sheila and religion-bound Gracie; Sheila’s daughter “Porsha” (Portia), who seeks escape from the city’s snares and delusions in a commercial world of “beauty” and in her headlong affair with a handsome stud significantly nicknamed “Deathrow”; and the flickering figure of John Jones, a troubled Vietnam vet and wanderer who cannot remain faithful to his wife or their kin—with devastating results memorably shown in a long, harrowing denouement. An exciting and rewarding successor to the legacy of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Allen worked eight years on this novel, and the result is a very impressive creation: the work of an unusually gifted, disciplined, and more than promising writer.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-374-24626-2
Page count: 556pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1999


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