"Song of the Shank," Jeffery Renard Allen's epic and brilliant new novel about slavery and musical genius, is not an easy book to read. There is, for starters, the book's odd and sometimes confounding protagonist, based on a real man who is most often referred to in historical accounts as "Blind Tom."
"He isn't talking. He isn't playing," his mother observes when Tom is a boy. "He isn't even moving." As he grows into adulthood, Blind Tom is a cipher for dozens of pages and then suddenly sets off torrents of words and original music.
Tom Wiggins, born a slave in Georgia, was a musical prodigy (arguably one of the greatest of his time), autistic and, of course, blind. The story of how he lost his sight is one of several painfully vivid passages in "Song of the Shank," the third book of fiction from Allen, who also penned the critically acclaimed novel "Rails Under My Back."
"He passed most of each day sitting out in the open, under the sky, with his face upturned at the sun, and with his lids fully open," Allen writes, describing an episode from Tom's childhood. "He screamed, kicked, and punched if you tried to pull him away, into the shade."
Finally, there's the writing style itself. Allen is also a published poet. His prose can be lyrical and ethereal at one moment and then as stiff and awkward as the garments worn by his novel's 19th century characters. Every so often (and making ample use of parentheses) Allen pens an observation, thought or phrase that's oddly convoluted or impenetrable.
"She does not think of Tom as having desires other than those demanded by the way they live," Allen writes in an early chapter that's told from the point of view of Tom's white caretaker. "How might Tom describe himself? (Occurs to her to wonder). Is she promising something that's not hers to keep?"
What makes "Song of Shank" more than worth the effort, however, is the ambition of its author, and the strangeness and poignancy of its subject matter. Allen's novel unfolds against the backdrop of the last years of slavery — Tom was born 12 years before the onset of the Civil War and lived to see the 20th century. He played in the White House for President James Buchanan and traveled the world playing concerts that often included performances of his own compositions.
Tom was surrounded by manipulators and con men. A few white people ("alabasters," Allen calls them) grew wealthy from his performances, even after he was formally emancipated — one recent documentary referred to him as "the last legal slave in America." To some he was a mere mimic, a freak of nature.
In "Song of the Shank" Allen imagines the arrival of a music teacher, summoned by Tom's Georgia slave masters not long after the boy has begun to spontaneously play the piano. The teacher believes that nothing will come of instructing Tom further. "For the Negro race can never produce a Mozart," the teacher thinks. "The world has never known and will never know a Negro genius."
No recordings exist of Tom's performances. Precious few hard facts exist in the historical record about his life, but this is of little concern to Allen, who bravely and boldly eschews the formulas and conventions of the historical novel again and again.
Plot is of secondary concern in "Song of the Shank." The narrative jumps back and forth in time. We are with adult Tom as the novel opens, then with Tom the boy, and back with adult Tom. The point of view shifts frequently. It will also help if you know a bit about America's ante- and post-bellum history; there are some subtle allusions to the race riots and lynching that ravaged New York during the Civil War, for example, that are not explained to the uninformed reader.
Many works of American historical fiction these days seem to be deeply influenced by cinema, and it's common for American historical novels to feel like thinly veiled screenplays. "Song of the Shank" is not such a work. Allen appears completely uninterested in creating heroes or in using his prodigious language gifts to simply evoke a distant time and place. Instead, "Song of the Shank" feels like a kind of exercise in deep thought and immersion in Tom's uniquely bizarre experience and the cruel history he was forced to live.
Tom is at once famous and powerless. He is the first black musician to perform at the White House, but he does so as a slave. He cannot see — he probably doesn't even know he's black, some white observers opine — but thousands come to see him perform. Many more listen to his bestselling compositions or read accounts of his exploits.
When Tom goes on tour and fields questions from reporters, his comments are sometimes cryptic, sometimes priceless. He speaks in aphorisms, such as "a photograph is a mirror that remembers."
And when one scribe asks "Do you ever suffer from fatigue?" Tom's answer is in its own strange way a defense of his humanity and intelligence in the face of a culture that regards him as subhuman. "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space," he says.
The African Americans in Allen's novel ask a larger question: Was Blind Tom "aiding the Race or harming it?"
Taking up Tom's story more than a century later, Allen is not necessarily interested in answering that question. Rather, his unhurried and unconventional novel is a celebration of an utterly unique American artist. Blind Tom was a man of big appetites and few words that were his own. He loved music so much, he didn't care for whom he played, how much they paid him, or whether they considered him a "genius" or a freakish "savant."
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Song of the Shank
Jeffery Renard Allen
Graywolf: 570 pp., $18 paper