Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: "Song of the Shank" by Jeffery Renard Allen


In the midst of reading Jeffery Renard Allen’s monstrous second novel Song of the Shank, I went in search of more information about it, and came across a review that stated it took ten years to write. That doesn’t surprise me. It wouldn’t surprise me if a book like this took twenty years to write. Books that are as intricate, complex and as thoughtfully laid out as this not only take talent which, like Stephen King once said is “cheaper than table salt”, but it takes lots and lots of effort, the amount of which makes my head spin, almost as much as it spun while trying to digest such a dense book. But its density is warranted, because while I was left breathless most times trying to connect the dots, let alone try to thoughtfully deconstruct it, I found it had a deep richness hidden within the smaller passages that filled me with awe and wonder. It takes place a few years after the end of the Civil War during the Reconstruction, and its focus is on the partially fictionalized account of the life of savant musician Blind Tom Wiggins, little none today but vastly popular at the time for his almost mystical skills when it came to the piano. We follow him as time and the ways of life shift around him. He is many things to the many people who come in contact and hold sway over him: to some like his mom and Tabbs Gross on Edgemare, an island filled with black expatriates, he is a savior for change and for others, like General Bethune and his family, who owned him before the Civil War and never told him he was free, and the impotent duo of Perry Oliver and his servant Seven, both bearing witness to someone greater than them, he is a symbol for a dying culture and a way back to the top. This book is complex and yes, maddening, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I found it smart and whimsical, especially when Tom, a character much like Benjy Compson, whose disability leaves him out of place and out of time, but also makes him something of a clairvoyant, waxes poetic. As mentioned, this book has a lot more in common with modernist literature than post modern, and for that, this odyssey into forgotten American history and race relations is a pure breath of fresh air.

Rating: 4/5

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