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Rails Under My Back.

Jeffery Renard Allen. Rails Under My Back. San Diego: Harcourt, 2000. 563 pp. $14.00.

Rails Under My Back is an impressive first novel announcing a fresh voice in African American fiction. Boldly impressionistic and held together brilliantly by a series of symbols deeply rooted in African American and Western traditions, it tells the story of two black families in danger of disintegrating under the pressures of contemporary urban life.

Allen does for twenty-first-century Chicago what Dreiser had done at the him of the century in Sister Carrie and what Wright had done during the Great Depression in Native Son--create a powerful and resonant fictive world, densely populated with a wide variety of vibrant characters who are forced to contend with disturbing new forces in American life. Allen's Chicago at times suggests liberating Dreiserian space, with its "endless vistas of water, land, and sky." At other times, however, it becomes Wright's darkly surreal underworld, "the hollow skeleton beneath the city's concrete-and-steel skin," a mindscape reflecting the inner turmoil of the central characters. But Allen's Chicago is also something quite different from all of its predecessors, a uniquely postmodern world where events never really add up, irrational violence is the norm, and people simply disappear.

Allen's symbol for the postmodern city is Red Hook Housing Projects, a grim world consisting of sixteen high-rise buildings creating a "massive grid" which traps 9600 black families. Described as a "soaring metal commode flooded with an invisible tide of heaving black brown yellow flesh," it is a twenty-first-century version of Dante's Hell, a world of human betrayal where "hooded boys [men?] moved lethargic, dreamlike" as they prey upon each other.

Three central metaphors brilliantly define this urban world--trains, under-grounds, and "gravity." Unlike the psychologically liberating trains of Blues music, the novel's trains are naturalistic symbols suggesting how most of Allen's characters are determined by a mechanistic social environment, a labyrinth of "rails" which they ride to their destruction. And the novel's underground is no underground railroad to freedom; rather, it is a striking metaphor of the subconscious compulsions which also shape and usually destroy the lives of most of the main characters. Thus caught between the harsh demands of external environment and internal compulsion, the novel's characters are subject to what Allen calls "the laws of gravity," powerful forces which reduce them to hapless victims.

John Jones, for example, simply disappears into "the big machine of New York" when he offends Freeze, a Red Hook gang leader who commissions Jones's son Jesus to assassinate him. (Failing to find his father, the ironically named Jesus tries to please Freeze by murdering his uncle in a senseless, drive-by shooting.) Gravity also takes its "toll" on a variety of other characters. Sam Griffith's life is ruined when a subway train amputates his leg. Porsha is faced with an empty life when her lover unaccountably abandons her. Sheila Jones, in the same way, is destroyed when her husband takes off and her brother-in-law is murdered. Like so many of the novel's characters, she senses that she too is becoming invisible, "disappearing into the same invisible space where John and Lucifer have gone."

What saves the novel from complete despair is the ability of a very few characters to resist the "gravity" which would put them on "rails" leading to the "underground." These characters instead use their hearts, minds, and spirits to create "homes," centers of human connectedness and growth. Pool Webb, a minor character who works in the Community Center at Red Hook, creates a human life for himself and others by drawing people together in a "web" of relatedness. His apartment has been transformed into a "home," complete with a vegetable garden and a real kitchen where he shares his food and his life with others. Lula Mae Griffin, a family matriarch who has resisted the migration by rail to Chicago and has stayed "down home" in Mississippi and Arkansas, has made a small trailer into a "home." Such a place is a repository for family photograph albums, the family Bible, and important records of family history which Porsha and I-latch will hopefully study. Lula Mae's funeral toward the end of the novel is one of the book's few scenes of familial warmth and connectedness. And Lucifer's selfless search for his brother John offers convincing proof that even in such a sterile world "brothers are brothers." Lucifer's journey in search of a loved one, although unsuccessful, indicates that he can resist the "gravity" of selfishness which destroys his nephew Jesus and rise to a higher Level of human experience.

Moreover, the novel's extraordinary verbal energy endows it with a vitality which saves it from the enervating (and often convenient) nihilism which mars so much postmodem fiction. Allen's characters, both the admirable ones and the detestable ones, are intensely alive, and we know this by their distinctive voices. Their conversations, stories, sermons, songs--even their dreadful arguments and threats-bristle with life and bring us into a world which has genuine depth and complexity.

Rails Under My Back, however, is not without faults. Like many first novels, it is too long and would have benefitted from a sharper and more demanding editorial eye. And the New York scenes are thin, both in terms of how the setting is realized and how the action is presented within that setting. These quibbles aside, it is a novel of considerable power and technical skill. Allen has opened up very rich fictional territory in his first novel, and one hopes he will continue to explore it in future novels. Allen's Chicago, like Wideman's Pittsburgh, is much too big and filled with too many artistic possibilities to be exhausted in a single book, even one as big as Rails Under My Back.
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Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Butler, Robert
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Words:956
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