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

Thu, Jun 26, 2014 - Page 11

Before the Chitlin’ Circuit, before the Cotton Club and eons before Soul Train or Black Entertainment Television (BET) put black talent on display, there was Congo Square in New Orleans. During Louisiana’s 18th-century French and Spanish colonial era, slaves were allowed to convene near the square on their Sundays off from work to sing, dance and play music — a practice that continued beyond the Louisiana Purchase. Word spread of the spectacle, and soon the slaves began to draw crowds of whites. Later the attempted suppression of “savage” African music by the Protestants helped transform Congo Square into a phenomenon sought by visitors from far and wide. You could argue that in that square, located in what is now Louis Armstrong Park, the American black as an entertainer was born.

In that sense, Congo Square was also the birthplace of one of the 19th century’s most famous entertainers, the blind piano prodigy and autistic savant Thomas Wiggins. Blind Tom — actually born into slavery in nearby Georgia, in 1849 — entertained thousands across the country and abroad, including Mark Twain, Willa Cather and other high-minded types. As if world touring weren’t amazing enough for a child, Tom made history as the first black known to play at the White House when he performed for President James Buchanan at the age of 10. Now, to Tom’s list of accomplishments, we can add his role as the protagonist of Jeffery Renard Allen’s masterly new novel, Song of the Shank.

The novel blends Tom’s personal history with the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It sagely explores themes of religion, class, art and genius, and introduces elements of magic realism (mermaids and mermen appear, as does a man who is inexplicably healed of short leg syndrome), resulting in the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.

Song of the Shank is set primarily on an island called Edgemere and in an unnamed city that closely resembles New York. The mosaic-like narrative opens in 1866, a year after the Civil War ends, with a teenage Tom living in the city with his guardian, Eliza Bethune. After they’re contacted by a man who promises to reunite the prodigy with his recently freed mother, the story backtracks to Tom’s childhood on a plantation owned (like Tom himself) by Eliza’s father-in-law, General Bethune — a rich newspaper publisher and die-hard secessionist who even Tom’s mother believes “maintains an unimpeachable position in the public mind.”

As a toddler Tom is found to be blind and “feebleminded,” and therefore allowed to roam free on the plantation. One day his gift for music is discovered by Mistress Bethune during her daughter’s piano lesson. She takes Tom under her tutelage, and before long, her husband discovers he has a “conundrum of nature” in his midst. This prompts him to usurp Tom from his parents, move him into the big house and allow his wife to develop Tom’s innate musical talents. Still, it isn’t until the general’s daughters begin to showcase Tom to small local groups that Tom’s master realizes he has a moneymaker on his hands.

General Bethune hires a renowned piano teacher, who trains the young savant not only to play several famous compositions but also to improvise and create his own music. Thanks to his virtuoso performances — along with immense marketing savvy by his master and manager, and a nation of whites and freedmen who disbelieve blacks can achieve genius — Tom becomes a world-famous pianist. This success propels Allen’s inimitable novel, which covers about 20 years of Tom’s life as he becomes the object of intense scheming and fighting on the part of General Bethune, other members of the Bethune family, Tom’s mother, his former managers, mentors, caretakers and businessmen, even a preacher.

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.”