Rails Under My Back
Jan 2000. 352 pp. Hardcover.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1st edition. Mariner Books.
New York Times, review by Stephen Donadio:
"Jeffery Renard Allen's intricate and involving first novel evokes the works of Joyce and Faulkner, and, as its title suggests, it's a book very much concerned with travel, both metaphorical and actual. Rails Under My Back' shuttles between present and past—sometimes seamlessly, sometimes violently—as it weaves together the preoccupations of its characters. At the center of this restless narrative are the lives of two African-American couples, two brothers married to two sisters; but to fathom the experiences of these couples—Lucifer Jones and his wife, Sheila (McShan); John Jones and his wife, Gracie (McShan)—requires coming to terms with the predicaments of their children and recapturing the experience of forebears far removed in time and space."
The Austin Chronicle online review by Lissa Richardson:
"Rails Under My Back tells the stories of two African-American families bound to one another by the fateful marriages of two brothers to two sisters. In mid-20th-century Chicago, Lucifer and John Jones decide to marry Sheila and Grace McShan. Their children will make sure that nothing remains the same. The family saga that unfolds shows that these families are linked also by generations of similar experiences in Southern towns and Northern cities, an American history of black families moving from town to town according to where the train would take them. Deathrow, a minor character and a love object for beautiful Porsha, daughter of Lucifer and Sheila, says, "It ain't where you come from. It's where you're going." He is only partly correct. For the families in Rails, where they come from -- the starts and stops of familial love, the gaps in the family tree, the stories told (half-truths/total lies) -- are as important as the future."
Publishers Weekly online review:
"The charged metaphor of the railroad serves as the spine of this vigorous and imaginative debut, an epic novel chronicling the lives and loves of two brothers, Lucifer and John Jones, and their wives, sisters Gracie and Sheila McShan. Nearly eight years in the writing, Allen's complex, ambitious story of an extended African-American family examines the emotional and spiritual costs of progress and change as the two men grapple with the choices and responsibilities of marriage and parenting."
Frigatezine online review by Françoise Palleau-Papin:
"In Jeff Allen's epic novel Rails Under My Back, the narrators tell an extended family saga about the two crossed branches of a family tree created by two brothers who have married two sisters. Friends, brothers, cousins, parents, aunts and uncles, Second-World-War veterans, housing-project inhabitants, models, and drug dealers people this teeming novel—an African-American Odyssey. In it, two characters search separately for two others in a fictive city, a composite of New York and Chicago, as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus did in their Dublin tribulations."
International Journal of Humanities and Social Science online review by Pamela R. Fletcher: Read it here
Revue Française d'Études Américaines critical article: