Song of the Shank

Asked about Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor said, "Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down." Toni Morrison stayed on the rails, learned some things about ghost stories from Faulkner, and wrote her southern masterpiece Beloved. Now another African-American novelist, Jeffery Renard Allen, has published a historical novel with the subject matter, ambition, and some of the techniques of "the Dixie Limited." Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury begins with the narration of an "idiot," the cognitively impaired Benjy Compson, and the rest of the novel tests its characters by how they respond to his helplessness. At the center of Song of the Shank is a blind slave, Thomas Wiggins, whom several characters call an "idiot" because of his spastic movements and obscure utterances. In fact -- in the novel and in American history -- Wiggins was a musical prodigy and recall savant who toured the world as Blind Tom, amazing mid-nineteenth-century audiences by playing sophisticated compositions and reciting difficult texts (in languages he didn't know!) from memory.

Song of the Shank could have been a sentimental song of the South, custom-made for Oprah or the big screen. But like Faulkner, Allen uses multiple points of view -- more than the three that follow Benjy's section -- and shifts in both time and space to make his book as complex as his Tom is enigmatic. To ease readers into this long and fractured work, I'll describe in chronological order the narrative that emerges. Tom was born in 1848 or 1849 to a slave family in Columbus, Georgia. After he blinds himself as an infant, Tom is "free" -- to roam his owner's estate, much to the distress of his mother, Charity, who attempts to understand with her limited vocabulary the behavior of the child she calls "curious," both odd and fascinated by strange sensory experiences. (A century later, neurologist Oliver Sacks characterized Tom as having been autistic.) When toddler-age Tom displays astonishing talents on his owner's piano, he becomes even more of a mystery to his family but is quickly recognized as a social and economic asset by his master, General Bethune. Allen's Bethune is, himself, an oddity: a slaveholder and rabid secessionist who condescends to his dirty-handed "planter" neighbors. But as a newspaper publisher, he recognizes a new value of bonded labor -- entertainment.

Bethune leases Tom to one Perry Oliver, a white impresario. Ripped from familiar surroundings, Tom goes into a funk that Oliver's adolescent assistant, Seven, manages to penetrate -- with, for the time, poignant displays of empathy for the fearful boy who sits in a corner and soils himself. But like Charity, Seven knows he lacks the "words" to fathom Tom, a meta-linguistic theme that Allen extends throughout the novel to include scientists, clergymen, and even himself. Although Tom eventually accepts training from a music professor, Oliver promotes Tom as an untutored prodigy and rakes in enormous profits from his tours, on which the child amazes and then amuses with his shouted claims, like the young Muhammad Ali's, that he is the "greatest."

Allen does not flinch from the inconvenient facts that young Tom has no use for "niggers," may not understand he's a Negro, and does not realize his concerts help fund Bethune's secessionist cause. In the terms of another great African-American novelist, Tom is highly visible to others who are invisible to him, and he is largely invisible to himself. The Latin root of prodigy meant "omen."  Allen keeps the contemporary relevance of his historical entertainer mostly implicit but occasionally uses anachronistic phrases -- such as the epithet "half man, half amazing," applied recently to the musician Nas and the basketball star Vince Carter -- to give Song of the Shank a predictive quality.

After Bethune reclaims Tom from his manager in 1862, Song of the Shank begins to depart from the facts of Thomas Wiggins's life. Allen invents a period of miscegenation when Tom lives quite happily with Eliza, the young widow of Bethune's son, Sharpe. The lyricism of Eliza's point of view recalls the poetic qualities of sensitive Quentin's section in The Sound and the Fury. Like Tom's mother, Eliza has more feeling for Tom's body and sensibility than the men who have manipulated him, but unable to care for and protect Tom, she surrenders him to an African-American man named Tabbs Gross.

In the second half of the novel, Allen's methods separate into two opposite extremes. He incorporates documentary history -- the Civil War Draft Riots targeting blacks in New York City, the suffering of free black refugees from the South in the city after the war -- but he also imagines an alternative space, an island not far from New York that he calls Edgemere, where displaced blacks live and where Allen has Gross arrange Tom's reunion with his mother (another counterfactual event). Gross hopes to use Charity's influence to bring Tom back out on tour, to present him not as a person "touched" by God or as a "freak" of nature but as a representative of black humanity and potential, an unusual symbol of uplift. Part "Race man," part con man, Gross dominates the book's second half.

Also on Edgemere, a setting vaguely African, are other black characters -- such as the highly articulate Reverend Wire and his fiery deacon, Double -- who discuss the best responses to their dispossession and the plight of southern refugees. Like some early version of Michael Jackson, Tom is uncertainly above or below such interests, but his possible future with Gross remains the plot hook on which Allen can hang his political discussions, which sound like arguments between Martin Luther King Jr. and more militant civil rights leaders of the 1960s.

The action of the novel ends in 1869 with a cross-dressing escape like that in Uncle Tom's Cabin and a romance with no historical basis. Thomas Wiggins, though, lived on: he was judged insane in 1872, made sporadic appearances afterward, disappeared from public view for many years, and was rumored dead long before his death in 1908. Allen has said he began Song of the Shank as a fictionalized biography of Wiggins but changed the novel's form and focus after reading about the Draft Riots. I understand his interest in those events and see the parallel between the continued mistreatment of the emancipated Tom and free blacks in the North, but why Allen altered numerous and essential facts of his protagonist's life is unclear. At the novel's end, his changes made me wonder if the real Thomas Wiggins was again being exploited, this time by a novelist who wanted a conventional conclusion and rounded form despite his work's initial rebellion against traditional storytelling. In the last sections, the now grown character Seven manages a copycat prodigy he bills as "The Original Blind Tom." With this subplot, Allen, who has a Ph.D. in literature, may be implying the once trendy deconstructive idea that there are no originals, only a precession of simulacra. But in "fact" -- a word, like "words," that recurs again and again in the novel -- Thomas Wiggins lived a longer, more complicated, and unhappier life than Allen chooses to present.

In an interview a few years ago, Allen complained that in the United States African-American novelists are always compared with other African-American writers. He wants to be seen in relation to white, as well as black, writers and mentions the influence of W. G. Sebald. This is most explicit in Song of the Shank in the facsimiles of printed documents, photographs, and puzzling geometrical designs that Allen includes, but also evident in his treatment of historical "fact" as suppositional and fiction, like the managers' deceptive promotion of Tom, as a game. Even when Allen has a character intuit another's feelings or meditate on her own existence -- the binding strengths of this intensely psychological novel -- Allen may drop in a quote from a source the character could not know -- the Bible, T. S. Eliot, Dante, Lincoln, Shakespeare, Hughes, Obama, and probably others I missed -- to suggest that the game in Song of the Shank is bi-level or bi-temporal, Reconstruction lives being reconstructed by a twenty-first-century author. Sebald uses similar Brechtian alienation effects, but some readers may find that the technique disrupts an emotional response to the novel's situations.

Tom himself is the ultimate disrupter of narration, communication, and emotional predictability. When audiences expect him to sit quietly before the piano, he twirls onstage. When his managers think he will play, he sits under the piano and refuses to move. When his caretakers believe they are finally communicating with Tom, he issues some irrelevant or unexpected or cruel remark. Here is one of his conversations with Seven:

The best bread comes from the flesh, Tom says.
Tom, what are you gabbering about?  I dread hearing you go on like that.
The book speaks like a nigger, Tom says.
Seven doesn't have the slightest idea what Tom has in mind.
Jesus speaks like a nigger, Tom says. The Hebrews speak like niggers.
Seven doesn't know the source for this sudden religious outpouring, although it is not unusual for Tom to slap the mind awake with some sudden nonsensical statement.

Seven fails to realize that Tom dislikes religious music, which may be the cause of this particular mind-slap. Although Allen doesn't claim that Tom's persistent inappropriateness is his willed response to expropriation, Tom could be more canny than his intimates believe. First there was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Christ-like Tom, then Richard Wright's naturalistic Bigger Thomas in Native Son. In Song of the Shank we could have what the African-American critic Henry Louis Gates called a "signifying monkey," a trickster Tom who seems simple-minded but may use that perception to mock and resist those who would control him, both whites and blacks. As Faulkner knew about Benjy, it would be impossible to keep Tom on the novel's stage all of the time, so Allen gives most of his space to those around Tom. But I still think Allen loses opportunities for cultural critique, such as the court battles about Tom's guardianship and his sanity, by altering and foreshortening his biography.

Song of the Shank may well be a great book. Given its materials and methods, I wanted it to be grand or even grandiose, like Absalom, Absalom! -- which I hope explains my desire above for more, for prodigiousness from this work about a prodigy. Shank will almost certainly be widely read. It has multiple appeals: it tells a story of unjust victimization, combines several familiar subgenres -- the syndrome novel (think Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn), the biopic (McBride's The Good Lord Bird), the alternative history (Reed's Mumbo Jumbo) -- and doesn't burden readers with period styles. But I find Allen's first novel, Rails under My Back, published in 2000, even more interesting, more Faulknerian, and I hope readers will try its challenges after finishing Song of the Shank. Tracing the gnarled histories of two contemporary African-American families in (mostly) a city that resembles Chicago, Rails under My Back has intricacies ironed out of Song of the Shank, plots that Allen feels no need to resolve, some characters almost as odd as Tom, urban grit and street cred, as well as a range of vernaculars like those in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.

The following passage from Song of the Shank indirectly describes its disruptive energy, but the passage even more accurately represents the Faulknerian abundance of Rails under My Back:

Tom plays with a powerful joy, a melody played too fast or too slow. It's got things that shouldn't be in there, foreign tones, melodies taking wrong turns, bass notes darkening passages that should be clear, chords with so many notes they cancel any understanding, foot hand allowing chords to resonate and invade where they shouldn't, a deliberate display of excess, of error, of noise, Tom having his way….

The passage is about Tom practicing. In his scripted public performances, Thomas Wiggins was the prisoner of "The Blind Tom Exhibition" and its largely classical repertoire. In the jazz riffs, blues lines, gospel shouts, rock solos, and rap ditties of Rails under My Back, Allen takes full and joyful advantage of his artistic freedom from historical fact. Together with his book of stories, Holding Pattern, Song of the Shank and Rails under My Back give us a new Yoknatapawpha that extends in space from the Deep South to the dense North and in time from slave days to hip-hop nights. If Faulkner was the Dixie Limited, Jeffery Renard Allen is an American Express.

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