Song of the Shank
Jun 2014. 584 pp. Paperback. Graywolf Press.
"Inventive, earthy, lyrical, demanding, rewarding.... Allen renders these folk and their chaotic existences with grittiness, inherent sympathy and intuitive grace.... There are echoes, however oblique or not, in this potential Great American Novel of past masters Faulkner, Hemingway, Ellison, Melville, John Edgar Wideman, Ishmael Reed."
—Tom Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle
"Powerfully evokes the life of the 19th-century slave and enigmatic musical savant, Blind Tom." —Vanity Fair
"[A] delightful literary gem." —Essence
"Together with his book of stories, Holding Pattern, Song of the Shank and Rails Under My Back give us a new Yoknatapawpha that extends in space from the Deep South to the dense North and in time from slave days to hip-hop nights. If Faulkner was the Dixie Limited, Jeffery Renard Allen is an American Express." —Barnes and Noble Review
"Allen treats language in Song of the Shank the way an Impressionist approached paint.... He’s managed to gather the caustic consequences of fame, a mini-history of American race relations, Reconstruction, the solitary interior life of an artist, and a whole lot more, between the covers of a book worthy of any attentive reader’s notice."
—Thane Tierney, BookPage
"Allen’s psychological insight and evocative language vividly bring to life all the black and white people in Tom’s life who, in seeking to understand or exploit Tom’s unholy gifts, are both transformed and transfixed by his inscrutable, resolutely self-contained personality. If there’s any justice, Allen’s visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject’s performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Both the conception and the underlying history behind this story will leave readers with a profound understanding of the inhumanity of slavery and 19th century racial attitudes.... [An] admirable book that invites an important excavation of the past."
"Song of the Shank, for all of its invention, feels like a resurrection of a true past. Jeffrey Renard Allen so fully inhabits this imagined history, and so convincingly renders the charisma and mystery of Blind Tom, the story seems as alive and immediate as this very present moment. With his electric and searing prose, with his uncanny insight, Allen has written a spell-binding, masterful novel."
—Rene Steinke, author of Friendswood
"Allen’s novel is an amazing imagining of another time, place, world."
"One of the miracle books. Also a gift for those of us who love reading and writing—a gift for those not born yet who will learn much about writing and reading, about themselves from Blind Tom."
—John Edgar Wideman
"Talent and brilliance are not enough. Writing a novel like this is the equivalent of building a three story building. Single handedly. Jeffery Renard Allen scores highly with this novel about the Michael Jackson of the nineteenth century, the savant, Blind Tom." —Ishmael Reed
At the heart of this remarkable novel is Thomas Greene Wiggins, a 19th-century slave and improbable musical genius who performed under the name Blind Tom.
In 1866, Tom and his guardian, Eliza Bethune, struggle to readjust to their fashionable apartment in the City in the aftermath of riots that had driven them away a few years before. But soon a stranger arrives from the mysterious island of Edgemere—inhabited solely by African settlers and black refugees from the war and riots—who intends to reunite Tom with his now-liberated mother.
As the novel ranges from Tom’s boyhood to the heights of his performing career, the inscrutable savant is buffeted by opportunistic teachers and crooked managers, crackpot healers, and militant prophets. In his symphonic novel, Jeffery Renard Allen blends history and fantastical invention to bring to life a radical cipher, a man who profoundly changes all who encounter him.