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Song of the Shank: A Novel Paperback – June 17, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Now a fairly obscure historical figure, Tom Wiggins, born a slave, became an international sensation as a pianist. In the extraordinarily talented hands of Allen, Tom is a mysterious and compelling figure, a blind black boy at a time when his perceived infirmities, including his race, should make him insignificant. Apparently an autistic savant, Tom exhibits both giftedness and odd behavior, which unnerves and enthralls those around him. Allen uses Tom as the central figure as the novel explorescomplex relationships and the interior lives of black and white folks, including a mother with little authority over her child, a fairly benign but self-absorbed slave owner, ambitious promoters, an assortment of orphans and former slaves at wit’s end about their future, and a genius oblivious to the tumult around him. Told from various perspectives, shifting between the pre– and post–Civil War periods, Allen’s tour de force sweeps from the rural South to New York City and between lonely apartments and raucous refugee camps, encompassing the strife of war and the draft riots. Amid the larger drama of slavery and its injustices, Allen offers the more intimate drama of one young boy’s life and the financial and emotional investments involved in the question of what’s to be done with his exceptional talent. A brilliant book, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. --Vanessa Bush

Review

[A] masterly new novel. . . . It sagely explores themes of religion, class, art and genius, and introduces elements of magic realism . . . resulting in the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce. (The New York Times Book Review (front cover))

Allen's elaborate novel unfurls like a tapestry, its minutely detailed tableaux illustrating the vast, unhealed bruise of American racism. (The Boston Globe)

Powerfully evokes the life of the 19th-century slave and enigmatic musical savant, Blind Tom. (Vanity Fair)

Epic and brilliant. . . . [Allen's] unhurried and unconventional novel is a celebration of an utterly unique American artist. (The Los Angeles Times)

Inventive, earthy, lyrical, demanding, rewarding. . . . There are echoes . . . in this potential Great American Novel of past masters Faulkner, Hemingway, Ellison, Melville, John Edgar Wideman, Ishmael Reed. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Beautiful. . . . [Allen's] style is at once dense and spare--his prose poetic and heavily evocative. (Chicago Tribune)

An eerie fever dream of a historical novel. . . . [Allen] carries the resources of the poet and the psychic in his trick bag. (Bookforum)

[An] explosive vanguard novel . . . a chilling orphic drama full of polyrhythmic shakers and shells. . . . A landmark of modern African-American literature. . . . Reading through this sagacious volume is like stumbling on a crooked monument covered in celestial carvings, something that aims for the stars and ends up reconfiguring constellations. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

If there's any justice, Allen's visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject's performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists. (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

[A] delightful literary gem. (Essence)

[A] sprawling, Faulknerian work of fiction. (The Kansas City Star)

In the extraordinarily talented hands of Allen, Tom is a mysterious and compelling figure. . . . [A] tour de force. . . . A brilliant book, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. (Booklist, starred review)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press (June 17, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555976808
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555976804
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #240,931 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Jay on June 20, 2014
Format: Paperback
Reminiscent of Edward P Jones, this book and its language will knock your socks off. Unlike Mr. Jones' THE KNOWN WORLD (which I loved), I do not think readers will have difficulty following the plot and characters. The author presents a novel whose language is rich and smart but straightforward.
If the book were a meal, Allen's words would be some of the freshest ingredients you'll ever taste - the combination of characters, events, and setting lead to complete satiation. I have not read a book this good in years (and I am a voracious reader).
I will not reveal the plot other than what is known: the savant Tom entertains and brings joy to many while being demeaned in the antebellum south.
Believe the hype and treat yourself. Not your typical beach read but it will captivate you and enhance the Summer of 2014.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Thomas F. Dillingham VINE VOICE on July 7, 2014
Format: Paperback
At the center of "Song of the Shank" is a character who defies efforts to "understand," to "empathize," to explain his complexities, assuming that they are there. Thomas (not Tom!) Wiggins is a slave in pre-Civil War Georgia, owned by General Bethune (an active and vigorous advocate of secession and supporter of slavery), who is also an "idiot savant," able as a small boy to play thousands of pieces of music (as well as compose his own) on the piano. This story of Thomas Wiggins is loosely based on the actual man, whose owner exploited his talents when he was a child and whom others continued to exploit, or attempt to exploit, for much of his young adult life. He has almost no defense against his exploiters except that his person remains unknowable and so uncanny to all who approach and try to know him

He is described at one point: "Perfectly content in the skin he calls.home, Tom lives inside his body like a turtle, his world limited to the extremities of his skin. He can never escape his own head through the distractions the world offers sighted people." But is this complete and definitive? It reflects the view of one of his exploiters, Sharpe Bethune, son of General Bethune and "manager" of "Blind Tom" as a touring phenomenon. Elsewhere, we read: "He can't see it, can only feel its warmth on his skin, feathers of light and shadow. Steady light. Everything waits to be seen, wants to be seen, and remembered. The world taunts him with its sights. But touch is his primary means of witnessing the world. Taking stock. Fingers the patterned ridges of tree bark, whcih reveal less of what is actually there--weight, density--offering only the skeletal outline of some longing.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Michael White on July 13, 2014
Format: Paperback
In Song of the Shank, the slave and piano prodigy Blind Tom is like a crystal ball, the inscrutable focus of the characters' thinking and struggling on the role and future of race in post-Civil War America. To his owner and manager, Tom is little more than a well-trained circus monkey, raising money for the Confederate cause as he entertains and delights white people across the world. To an African-American con man from New York, Tom is a gift to his race, who are entitled to the glory and the financial rewards of Tom's accomplishments. Tom himself, likely an autistic savant in real life, stays closed within himself, making pronouncements that could be the words of either an idiot or an oracle, performing the classical repertoire and his own little compositions, sometimes just a bit off, showing him to be either an imperfect imitator of the music of dead white men, or one who hears a genuine music of Black experience.

But don't get me wrong, this book is not some didactic, philosophical discussion of race. It's a fantastic novel with well-realized characters who try to make sense of their experiences of slavery, the New York draft riots, and Reconstruction, with Tom as the focal point of their ambitions, struggles, failures, and confusions. We never know what's going inside Tom's head, in fact we never even see Tom at the height of his world-famous career. The voices in the books are those of the rich, varied characters who fall into Tom's orbit: his slave mother, his secessionist owner, his entrepreneurial manager, his earnest caretakers, and the leaders of a fictional Black refugee community who take Tom after the war.
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“Beneath history is another history we’ve made without even knowing it.” This revelation by one of the characters in Jeffrey Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank is the same revelation one has when reading this excellent book.

Focusing on the autistic savant “Blind Tom,” the world-renowned piano prodigy born of slaves Allen’s novel creates an indelibly realistic portrait of life in both the North and South before, during and after the American Civil War. Compared by the New York Times to Faulkner, Allen’s narrative fractures the chronology of Tom’s life while exploring the question Who should profit from the talent of an artist who cannot care for himself?—a question both timely and timeless. Tom is handed off from owner through a series of managers, both black and white, astonishing audiences with his gifted recitals and baffling those close to him with his oracular utterances.

Allen’s narrative, which stretches from Georgia to New York City and beyond to the segregated island of Edgemere, evokes the violence and dangers that showed that Emancipation was not the same as freedom—a truth that is as current as today’s headlines.

Perhaps Chinua Achebe’s words best express the importance of a piece of literature like Song of the Shank: “It's not difficult to identify with somebody like yourself, somebody next door who looks like you. What's more difficult is to identify with someone you don't see, who's very far away, who's a different color, who eats a different kind of food. When you begin to do that then literature is really performing its wonders.” The world of Blind Tom is indeed very far away, but we need to recognize its echoes in our own world, how some songs remain the same.
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