RAILS UNDER MY BACK By Jeffery Renard Allen Farrar, Straus & Giroux 563 pp., $26
It may be that Jeffery Renard Allen cannot make up his mind: His debut novel includes elements gleaned from a survey of blockbuster novels and a smattering of literary symbols that a man intent on seeing his name installed among important works in the African-American literary canon might relish.
"Rails Under My Back" fails on both counts. It's long, overwrought, and burdened by stereotype and self-conscious word play.
The family tree in two parts on the flyleaf may be the first bad sign - along with, much later, pages from a family Bible that enters the plot precipitously enough to suggest a key to the previous 500 pages - presumably so readers can keep track of principal characters, members of an extended African-American family.
Because migration is a prominent theme in African-American history, hitching the fortunes of the Jones family - two brothers who married two sisters - to the possibilities inherent in moving from the South to the urban North, is not farfetched, but it comes across as a facile symbol that is quickly strained.
Jesus Jones, whose drug-induced memories propel early chapters, even sports a scar that resembles a railroad track. Traveling by subway trains to meet a drug-addict associate named No Face, Jesus (who may be drawn to mimic trickster figures in classic African-American tales) engages in pages of mindless drug chatter conveyed in stilted hip-hop-ese.
His father and uncle, John and Lucifer Jones, married the sisters Gracie and Sheila McShan, respectively. Conjurers are also central to African-American literature, and Allen attempts to link otherworldly matters to the everyday in the persons of the McShan sisters. Sheila was "born with a caul," a sign of some high calling, but it is Gracie, who, when pregnant resembled a "poisoned roach ready to explode," and gives birth to stillborn infants whose ghosts wreak havoc in her life.
Because Gracie is deliberately religious in a Christian sense, the reader is left to wonder at the how and why of the attack on Gracie's womb and of the probable purpose for its lone survivor, who reappears several hundred pages down the road after an elaborate recitation of incidents in the lives of various odd forebears.
Allen's flirtation with the idea of the creation novel is tentative up until the final moments of abstractly rendered intrafamilial murder and destruction using the novel's most abjectly transparent symbols.
There must be a shorter way to denouement, even by rail. The threads of Allen's tale lack clear organization and are hampered by his self-consciously artsy style, borrowing without apparent understanding of historical antecedents or literary innovation from Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and perhaps even Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Generations of black men and women painted as literary grotesques, a preoccupation with gratuitous violence against women, and repetitions of staccato phrases, two- and three-word images, no subject or verb, make the tale overlong and attempt to give the impression of complexity.
The only literarily interesting aspect of the novel is that the plot unwinds, at least for the middle 200 pages or so, in reverse, an intriguing technical accomplishment, ultimately let down by stereotypic characters and a confused plot.
* Dale Edwyna Smith teaches African-American Studies at St. Louis University and is the author of 'The Slaves of Liberty' (Garland).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society