Rails Under My Back

Jeffery Renard Allen, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-24626-6
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. Theirs is a clan always on the move between a big city that's a hybrid of New York and Chicago, Memphis and the West, and the departures and arrivals affect the stability of all, either strengthening the familial bonds or causing chaos and pain. The personalities of the two patriarchs, level-headed Lucifer and restless John, dominate the lengthy, sometimes perplexing narrative. Though different in temperament, the brothers are inseparable, sharing a small flat with their wives at the start of their marriages, celebrating their wedding anniversaries together. Allen tells their stories as well as those of their children, Portia, Hatch and Jesus, in a rapid series of episodes, often recalled in a nonlinear style from different vantage points. The vignettes tell of Sheila and Gracie's upbringing by their kind aunt, Miss Beulah, after they are abandoned by their mother; Lucifer's courtship of Sheila; the brothers' experiences in an unspecified war; the deaths of two of John and Gracie's babies; John's abuse and abandonment of his wife; and Jesus' brutal arrest after a violent confrontation with the family. Allen's multilayered exploration of the themes of abandonment, survival, love, emotional irresponsibility and redemption is original, but his dense, challenging fictional style, intermingling myth, cultural folklore and vernacular language, demands the reader's unflagging attention. For those who stay the course, however, the wondrous journey is rewarding. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 01/03/2000
Release date: 01/01/2000
Paperback - 576 pages - 978-0-15-601415-1
Paperback - 576 pages - 978-1-55597-723-8
Ebook - 978-1-55597-912-6
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