Thu, Jun 26, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Book review: Song of the Shank

Jeffery Renard Allen’s spellbinding second novel follows Blind Tom, an autistic slave, and his unlikely rise to musical fame

By Mitchell S. Jackson  /  NY Times News Service

The contentious lot includes whites and blacks, men and women, the poor and affluent, the religious and nonbelievers, Northerners and Southerners, all holding Tom to be a vital part of their sustenance or their legacy or the key to their dreams. As his first hired mentor says to Tom’s piano instructor: “Teach him all you can. . . . He has money in him.”

Tom, who was touted as the eighth wonder of the world, had other talents, including a superhuman memory — in the novel he recites Plato’s Republic in Greek, Latin and French — as well as the ability to sing and to mimic animals. I’m not sure if Jeffery Renard Allen can mimic animals, but he can certainly mimic people; one of his immense gifts is his skill at imagining his characters’ piquant voices, the most memorable of which belongs to his protagonist. Tom speaks seldom and briefly, but when he does, it almost always amounts to a kind of cryptic aphorism. After a performance, when a journalist asks him about fatigue, he answers, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space.” After his White House performance, he tells a fumbling photographer, “A photograph is a mirror that remembers.” Taken as a whole, Tom’s indelible voice gives the sense that he is often more lucid and knowing than the unafflicted who surround him.

Within the past year, stories about slavery have received grand critical praise: James McBride’s novel about John Brown, The Good Lord Bird, won the National Book Award, and Steve McQueen’s movie Twelve Years a Slave won the Academy Award for best picture. Though both were celebrated, they also engendered a fair amount of criticism, arguments that often amounted to myopic cynics questioning whether the culture needed another story about slaves. What McBride, McQueen and now Allen remind us is that the answer last year is the answer this year and will be the answer next year: yes. Song of the Shank brilliantly portrays the story of Blind Tom while providing keen insight into the history of Reconstruction. But at its heart, it also reminds us denizens of never-will-be postracial America of one simple but everlasting essential truth: “Them chains is hard on a man. Hard.”

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