James McBride explores race and culture in collection ‘Five-Carat Soul’

  • Kirkus Reviews
12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 Insight and Books
‘Five-Carat Soul,’ James McBride

James McBride’s “Five-Carat Soul” is a versatile, illustrious author brings out his first short-fiction buffet for sampling, and the results are provocatively varied in taste and texture; sometimes piquant, other times zesty.

It’s not every contemporary fiction collection that includes one story featuring Abraham Lincoln and another (somewhat) unrelated story involving a young mixed-race orphan wandering Civil War battlefields insisting he is President Lincoln’s son. But when the imagination at work here is as well-traveled as McBride’s, such juxtapositions are easily understood — and widely anticipated. Celebrated for his best-selling family memoir, “The Color of Water” (1996), and his National Book Award–winning antebellum picaresque novel, “The Good Lord Bird” (2013), McBride exhibits his formidable storytelling chops in an array of voices and settings that, however eclectic, are mostly held together by themes of race history and cultural collisions. As with most story collections, some selections work better than others; but those that do resonate profoundly. For instance: the first story, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” is told from the point of view of a white antique-toy dealer who, upon encountering the black family who now own a rare 19th-century train set once given as a present to Robert E. Lee’s son, is nonplussed by their willingness to give him the valuable artifact without haggling over money. There is also a poignant four-story cycle bearing the rubric “The Five Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band,” referring to a quintet of teen funk band musicians from an at-risk neighborhood in Uniontown, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb. McBride is daring enough to apply his realist’s sensibilities to fantasy with “The Moaning Bench,” in which a flamboyant heavyweight boxer bearing the looks, sass, and swagger, if not the same name, as Muhammad Ali challenges hell’s satanic gatekeeper to fight for the souls of five quivering candidates for Eternal Damnation. The best is saved for last: “Mr. P & the Wind,” a five-part suite of stories set in a contemporary urban zoo whose menagerie communicates with each other — and at least one human — in what they call Thought Speak. The charm emitted by these whimsical-yet-acerbic tales seems to come from a hypothetical late-19th-century collaboration of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.

McBride emerges here as a master of what some might call “wisdom fiction,” common to both “The Twilight Zone” and Bernard Malamud, offering instruction and moral edification to his readers without providing an Aesop-like moral.

(McBride will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. Oct. 5 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

Lesser-known Texas history

A native son takes a loping tour of the Lone Star State and the paths to, through, and from it in Roger D. Hodge’s “Texas Blood.”

Intercept national editor Hodge (“The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism,” 2010), a former editor of the Oxford American and Harper’s, grew up down on the Rio Grande and learned how to handle a rope and a six-shooter, the whole package. He got out at 18, and, he writes, “I’m still gone.” That kind of talk can get a person branded as a carpetbagger, but the author has long lines of history and blood tying him to the state over a couple of centuries, exploring which is the point of this somewhat shapeless but always interesting ramble across the state and points beyond, from the pioneer trails of Missouri to the gone-west paths across New Mexico and Arizona to California. Some of Hodge’s explorations are bookish: he’s a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, wandering around the vicinity of Del Rio contemplating “No Country for Old Men” and other “messages from lost worlds, artifacts of vanished histories.” Elsewhere, Hodge calls on the Border Patrol, ponders the lost ways of the Comanche Trail and the ever speculative argonauts, and visits the grave of Sam Houston’s Cherokee wife and a much-contested shrine constantly beset by what one defender calls “the Satanics from Juárez.” Hodge’s suggestion that the “official” history of Texas, whatever that might be, excludes many of its players, from Native Americans to French buccaneers and German freethinkers, isn’t quite accurate; no modern writer on Texas dares overlook them, and even the old-timers along the lines of J. Frank Dobie and John Graves recognized how diverse Texas was and is. Still, Hodge does a nice job of relating some of those lesser-known stories.

“Texas Blood” is of a piece with revisionist Westerns à la Larry McMurtry and Richard White and of much interest to readers along the border.

(Hodge will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)