Sample Book Reviews
W. Lawrence Hogue
Jeffery Renard Allen
227 pages; paper, $15.00
There is a great effort by contemporary African American writers, particularly African American male short story writers, to eschew the problematic of race and racism as the central focus of the story and to explore the nuances and the complications of African American life. They focus on subaltern and working-class African Americans (and a few middle-class African Americans) who have not been completely determined by Western Enlightenment reason. Beginning with James Alan McPherson's Hue and Cry (1968) and Elbow Room (1977) and culminating with Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City (1992) and All Aunt Hagar's Children (2006), Percival Everett's Damned If I Do: Stories (2004), and William Henry Lewis's In the Arms of Our Elders (1995) and I Got Somebody in Staunton (2005), there is a conscious move to expand the short story and to reconfigure African American life, outside victimized stereotypes. These writers incorporate non-rational (mystery) dimensions, complex human portraits, humor, intelligence, moral ambiguity, caring, and wonder into their re-construction of oppressive black life. The objective is to view African Americans as humanly and morally complex as any other Americans, except, perhaps, because of their isolation in the West, African Americans might be closer to the flow of desire than most other Americans.
Jeffery Renard Allen's Holding Pattern falls in this tradition. It is a collection of ten, diverse short stories that examines various aspects of African American urban (and some rural) life. Within this urban (and rural) life and written with beautiful, almost poetic prose, Allen's Holding Pattern combines the actual and the virtual, the gritty existential urban life with Christian morality, stasis with motion. We have characters, animals, and objects that are constantly becoming other: characters who grow wings (“Holding Pattern”), who bring “both claws to his mouth and [force] the rat inside” (“Toilet Training”), who become a “black Confederate soldier” (“Mississippi Story”), a monkey with wings, a demon child who bedevils a reckless businessman (“Shimmy”), and pennies that fall from heaven (“It Shall Be Again”). In addition, we have two Hatches, one urban and one rural, and we have two twins killed in the same place. In having characters, animals, and objects become other, in having characters have doubles, these stories undermine rigid Enlightenment reason, create virtual reality, question unified subjectivity, and expand human possibilities. They open up social, historical, subjective, and psychological spaces and assist these characters in surviving African American oppressive social reality.
"Holding Pattern examines various aspects of African American urban life with beautiful, almost poetic, prose."
But even those stories that deal with the hard (actual) reality of urban life have a certain surreal quality about them. The title story is told in hip, poetic, urban slang (“Then she hop up from her seat and pimp slap me. Knock pain in my head. My brain hummin and vibratin like a dunked-on hoop rim”), exploring the “trippy world” of the inner city as Pea and Juicy's sons, Crust and Hamfat, carry on their after-school hustle. The three make their money hustling in the city and on the El trains. Yet, they are so free and alive and human and energetic in their performances-“Excuse me, Ladies and gentlemen. Sorry to interrupt your conversation and readin pleasures. I'm Pork and I'm Chop, and together we the Pork Chop crew. We don't snatch chains, gangbang, or sling cocaine, or live in the correctional way. We just trying to earn a honest dollar”-that we forget that they are attempting to steal people's purses, swindle people out of their money, or illegally enter the El train. But even in the middle of this actual story about creatively surviving harsh reality, we get this surreal moment when a prisoner possesses wings. “The wings ain't got no feathers,” he says. “They all dried up and brown and crusty, like some fried chicken wings.” Absurdity brings humor and possibility to the world of Pea.
In addition, many of the stories in Holding Pattern such as “Bread and the Land,” “Dog Tags,” “Toilet Training,” “Same,” and “The Green Apocalypse” center on a middle-aged, Christian, morally complicated black woman who attempts to hold the pattern of her family together through moral strength and conviction. Yet, she inevitably fails. In “Bread,” there is Mamma (Joy), a sturdy, religious woman, who, on the one hand, has a secret past and has pride in the way she dresses-“She put herself before a full-length mirror, flexed a black hat onto her plump head, and slipped inside a black fur coat”-and, on the other hand, hopes to raise her son Hatch to be “responsible.” Therefore, she devises a contemporary family narrative that excludes the grandmother's sordid past. For Joy, it is good Christian manners to be obedient and not ask questions. But her inquisitive son Hatch (“victim of the stab of wondering”) continually asks questions that undermine her revised narrative. For example, Hatch wants to know if his grandmother Blunt, who has come to live with them, is a “phony.” In “Same,” Gloria is also very religious (always reading her Bible), and is raising her son, Lincoln Roosevelt, to be responsible. She slaps him when he asks questions about the past and his father. Finally, in “Shimmy,” Lee Christmas wants to be a father to his girlfriend's (Pea's) son Boo, who questions him.
In all of these stories, including “Mississippi Story,” the prevailing narratives are not able to sustain themselves, to hold the pattern. Incidents from the past impact the present or rear their heads and explain present behavior. In “Bread of the Land,” we learn through Mamma's remembrance that grandmother Blunt, who had earlier run her friend Red out of town with her straight razor, and her preacher/mortician husband were run out of the church and the town for “evil deeds.” “Rumor had it that he disrespected bodies placed in his care.” In “The Green Apocalypse,” it is a past altercation between Chitlin Sandwich and Hatch and their respective families that is causing Hatch's older sister's, Sheila's, current tension with Chitlin Sandwich, who has become a successful bully. As with Hatch in “Same,” Lincoln's goal in life is to uncover “the central mystery” in his mother's life. He spends his adult life trying “to verify the facts of Gloria's crime.” Through an omniscient voice, we learn that Gloria killed Lincoln's father. In “Shimmy,” we are told through Lee's thoughts that his mother killed his father and herself, and he leaves town when his wife goes to the hospital to deliver his child. In “Mississippi Story,” it was the narrator's trip to Mississippi and his great aunt's funeral when he was ten that colors his returned trip as an adult to a festival at a university in Mississippi. These stories show not only that the “holding pattern” cannot control the present, but they also show, countering the victimized stereotypes, complex African Americans who live their lives in the midst of conflicts, contradictions, repression, and moral ambiguities. As in the blues, they play with the cards they are dealt.
Although Jeffery Renard Allen lives in New York City and teaches in the writing program at the New School, his stories concern his childhood and early adulthood in Chicago. As narrativized, morally complex stories from the past, they are presented as timeless and universal. Thus, they lack the complexity of Allen's contemporary life. In addition, although the non-rational or surreal elements add a dimension to the life of these characters, the reader is not always aware of the use to which Allen puts these non-rational elements. Finally, and more important, most of the stories in Holding Pattern are wonderful as individual artistic units, but together they might fail as a coherent collection.
W. Lawrence Hogue is a professor of English at the University of Houston and the author of several books, including Postmodern American Literature and Its Other (2009) and The African American Male, Writing, and Difference: A Polycentric Approach to African American Literature, Criticism, and History (2003).