FICTION: A surreal journey through the Civil War follows Blind Tom, a young autistic slave, and his rise to musical fame.
Jeffery Renard Allen’s engrossing and demanding second novel, “Song of the Shank,” stirs like a modernist dream. Stream of consciousness abounds. Perspective bounces around from boat to boat in the sea of varied psyches. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce linger around every scrupulous window gaze or paranoid walk through the city. Allen occasionally taps the well of maximalism — Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Stanley Elkin — implicating the reader into the chaos of war with page-long, claustrophobic sentences. And, as if that weren’t enough variation, turn the page and you’re dropped into a spare exchange of oblique dialogue that recalls Samuel Beckett or Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” And yet, Allen’s prose is wholly his own.
The unconventional structure resists easy plot summary. As the title suggests, the novel often conjures music, growing quiet in half time, then boisterous double time, occasionally repeating phrases, then twisting with dissonance and improvisation. Mostly, though, “Song of the Shank” is the story of Blind Tom’s rise to musical fame. Tom is born a slave to parents who toil under the ruthless Gen. Bethune at a Georgian plantation called Hundred Gates. Bethune seizes on Tom’s curious affinity for imitation and imposes music lessons. Tom takes to the piano: “demonstrate a scale and he will play it; show him a melody and he will bounce it back.” His peculiarities investigated, a doctor declares “brain fever.”
Tom begins performing for Bethune’s private parties. When word of this mysterious savant spreads, Perry Oliver, tobacco farmer turned crotchety businessman, becomes Tom’s touring manager. A successful run of concerts takes Tom all over the world. He can recite whole passages of Plato and Dickens. Tom doesn’t get much page time, Allen favoring the many relationships that engender Tom’s growing anxiety. Caretakers, managers, doctors and prophets will eventually eclipse Tom, their varied exploitations driving him to retreat inside himself.
For the reader, there are times when you’re unsure where you are and who’s speaking — the novel begins in the 1860s and moves backward in time — but a careful rereading is sure to orient the reader willing to work. The constantly shifting perspective can be disorienting, but Allen quickly plays a hook and reseizes attention with the thrill of parsing out the off-kilter rules of his fictional universe. Race riots drive newly freed African Americans to the island of Edgemere. The increasingly ominous Bethune uses crutches “like a man rowing a boat on dry land.”
While “Song of the Shank” doesn’t have the emotional immediacy of “Holding Pattern,” Allen’s collection of stories, the reward is greater, and fans of his first novel, “Rails Under My Back,” will enjoy the medley of intricate language.
Josh Cook is the editor at large of Minneapolis-based Thirty Two Magazine.