First Pages: Ethan Nosowsky on Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen

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I’m a sucker for style. I know I’ll keep reading deep into a novel when the prose in the opening lines reminds me of no one else’s. Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank, which Graywolf publishes this week, has that rare quality of sounding only like itself. One pre-publication reviewer did find echoes of William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison in the book, and there’s certainly something to that. You might discern a hint of Faulkner’s maximalism in Allen’s lyrical, loping sentences, or you might detect Ellison’s jazzy rhythms and heightened sense of reality. But basically we have something pretty sui generis here.

 

Song of the Shank is based on the life of Thomas Wiggins, a.k.a. Blind Tom, a once-famous 19th century African American pianist who has been largely erased from the history books. But this is no conventional historical novel. While we know that Tom was born a slave in Georgia and died in New Jersey in 1908, there are no extant recordings of his performances, nor did he leave any written accounts of his own. Jeff Allen’s incantatory, hallucinatory novel draws its energy from those lacunae.

 

A blind person sees the world only indirectly, and from the first page of Song of the Shank, Allen tries to give the reader a sense of what it is like to move through the world as Tom does. What can and can’t be seen, both literally and metaphorically, is a dominant concern of the novel. In fact, sight figures significantly in the book’s opening lines:

 

She comes out of the house and sees fresh shapes in the grass, a geometrical warning she does not understand. Blades mashed down under a foot, half-digested clots of earth where shoe heels have bitten in, mutilated worms spiking up through regurgitated blackness—piecemeal configurations, suggesting a man’s shoe, two, large, like Tom’s but not Tom’s since Tom never wears shoes in the country.

 

“She” is Eliza, Tom’s caretaker, and while she can see, unlike Tom, she still can’t make sense of what it is she’s looking at—“she does not understand” the significance of footprints in the grass outside what we quickly learn is their house in the countryside. Clear answers are often hard to come by in Song of the Shank, and the characters, like the reader, must learn to dwell in mystery.

 

Allen conveys Eliza’s anxiety in those first lines not by saying something declarative like, “Eliza was worried,” but through the peculiarities of diction. The grass is “mashed down,” and there are “half-digested clots of dirt” that shoe heels have “bitten into.” “Mutilated” worms are “spiking up.” You might not notice those words when you first read them, but the steady accumulation of violent imagery works on you subconsciously. (Throughout the novel, Allen often puts violence and lyric beauty into uneasy relation with each other.)

 

It’s worth noting that our first glimpse of Tom is actually a decoy: the shoes “are like Tom’s but not Tom’s.” Signs, symbols, doubles, and imposters haunt the novel, all in the service of showing how impossible it was for anyone to know the real Blind Tom, and how hard it is for us now to “see” this man who had no sight.

 

In the sentence that follows the lines above, Eliza concludes definitively that someone seems to be spying on them. This is not a plot-driven novel, but as in any good mystery or thriller, we are filled with questions: who is after them, and why? Eliza begins to speculate:

 

Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long lost—three years? four?—“Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). She has grown accustomed to such intrusion, knows how to navigate around pointed questions and accusations. (Ignore the bell. Deny any insistent knock on the door and that voice on the other side, tongue and fist filled with demands. Speak calmly through the wood, polite but brief. Use any excuse to thwart their facts and assumptions. No matter what, don’t open the door.) Yet no one has called upon them their entire summer here in the country, those many months up until now, summer’s end.

 

Several things jump out at me in those lines: I like the way the journalists are referred to as “men of paper,” which is a nice way of making them seem insubstantial and shallow. We also learn here that Tom seems not to have appeared in public in several years. Which leads to another urgent plot question: why not? But what really strikes me here is the unusual use of parentheses. They seem to add a layer of commentary to the close third person point of view, but they do something else as well. When we read “a thousand words” we automatically supply the missing “a picture is worth.” The best writers make the reader an active participant in his or her own reading experience, and Allen here seems to have found his own way to do that.

 

Our “First Page” column is meant to be just that, but it should be said that the first paragraph of this book actually ends on page three, with Eliza still looking for Tom as evening approaches:

 

No timepiece on her person—her heavy silver watch left behind on the bedroom bureau—but she’s certain that it’s already well past Tom’s customary hour of return, sundown, when Tom grows hurried and fearful, quick to make it indoors, as if he knows that the encroaching dark seeks to swallow him up, dark skin, dark eyes.

 

So we begin in the dark. A colleague of mine once said that a good novelist builds a room that the reader can walk into. In Song of the Shank, Jeff Allen has built an entire mansion that the reader can walk into, but the lights are off, and you have to feel your way around.

 

Ethan Nosowsky is the Editorial Director of Graywolf Press