Spring Deals Automotive HPC Best Books of the Month New-season heels nav_sap_plcc_ascpsc Jordan Davis All-New Fire 7, starting at $49.99 Fire TV Stick: $29.99. Offer ends 3/26/18 Grocery Handmade Personalized Jewelry SpringEvent_Lawn_and_Garden Book a house cleaner for 2 or more hours on Amazon MMM MMM MMM  Echo Dot Fire tablets: Designed for entertainment Kindle Paperwhite AutoRip in CDs & Vinyl Shop now TG18SW_gno

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."

I quote these passages (there are many more, similarly poetic, similarly opaque, similarly brilliant) both to show that this author makes no effort to enter the inner thoughts or sensations of his central character--he describes them from outside, making his best effort to translate what might be the inner life of Blind Tom into terms readers might be able to share, without dishonestly claiming to "know" that inner life. We read many passages of description of Thomas Wiggins's behavior, his tantrums, his eccentric stage demeanour, his nearly incomprehensible outbursts of speech, as well as occasional comments that suggest an uncanny perception, a wit that suggests deep understanding of language. But this is no Sound and the Fury and Allen never takes us into Thomas Wiggins's stream of consciousness as Faulkner does with his Benjy.

Surrounding Blind Tom are a number of characters, variously loving and greedy, frustrated with their failures to "reach" him and angry at their failure to profit from him as much as they might like, though his career as a concert pianist is tremendously profitable to some "managers" and "publishers," but hardly ever to him or to his mother, Charity Wiggins, or to one of his later managers, Tabbs Gross, an African-American man determined to prove to the white world that Blind Tom is truly a genius on a par with the great European composers and virtuosos. While Tabbs uses questionable practices to gain control of Tom, his clear obsession is with that goal--to prove that all the other "managers" who presented Tom as a freak of nature were wrong, that a black man, former slave, could also be an artistic and musical genius.

Allen moves the reader forward and back, to the side and sometimes into brief confusion, shifting away from chronology in order to explore the "supporting cast of characters," each of which offers a different perspective on the situation of Tom, while also opening aspects of the history of the period, from about 1850 to 1869, leading up to the Civil War and incorporating several of the calamitous events of the period of Reconstruction. Some sections of the novel (especially those portraying Tom's early life at Hundred Gates, the plantation home of the Bethune family who owned Tom and his parents, Charity and Domingo) are based on the actual history of the period and records of the behavior of the characters involved, including Mary Bethune, the General's wife, who nurtured Tom's genius as a pianist and composer. The post-war sections are located on two islands, one having a strong similarly to Manhattan Island (New York City), and a fictional island, Edgemere, inhabited entirely by African-American people, some orphans and students at a school run by a minister, Reverend Wire, and others who have settled there. These sections move illusionistically between known history of the period and fictional portrayals of the efforts of the people (and the nation) to cope with the aftermath of Emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy, including the inability of the Union to deal adequately with the challenge of "absorbing" the Freedmen, cast adrift from their plantation bondage.

Allen has fictionalized some aspects of Blind Thomas Wiggins's life and career, and has left out some aspects of his later life (his competition, for example, with another blind pianist, Blind Boone, whose compositions and reputation are comparable with Wiggins's, as the pianist John Davis has demonstrated with his public performances of their music and his recordings. As it happens, if there is one "disappointment" in this novel, it is the very limited exploration of one of the most important aspects of Wiggins's life--music. There is a great deal of speculation among the people around him about how a blind and seemingly mentally challenged child could be such a brilliant musician; many conclude that his performances are those of a parrot or monkey, merely imitations, with no creative component; others hear and see his compositions as evidence of his creative genius, though some critics insisted he merely rearranged materials he had encountered from other composers. Further, the role of music as communication, even as a force for transformation, is explored. Blind Tom's attention to sounds and responses to the music in all aspects of the world around him suggests that he has a special kind of consciousness, remote from "normal" and if not superior, different enough to give his creations a special value, eliciting enthusiastic responses. Many passages signal to the reader the potential significance of music not just in Tom's life but in the general consciousness of humans general ly. But can music transform life and behavior, or is it, as Auden said of poetry, a form that never changes anything? When Tom, traumatized by an experience not made explicit, refuses to play for long periods, even seeming to have lost his memory and ability to play, the mystery deepens.

The shaping of this story, the brilliant exploration of racial attitudes, gender issues, political movements and aspirations, all of which are essential to understanding the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but not surprisingly are also poignantly relevant to our own time, make this one of the most impressive novels I have read. The names of Faulkner and Ralph Ellison come to mind and feel comfortable in the company of this great work. And one aspect of it that is especially worth noting is the way that Allen withholds (denies) every expectation that a reader might have about the likely development of particular (sometimes familiar) narrative lines. Time and again, Allen leads us to expect a predictable outcome--a confrontation culminating in an explosion and righteous "victory," a dialogue that seems to lead us toward a revelation about motive or character or the "real" solution of a mystery--such simple and expected resolutions are not provided, but we are never disappointed, because the narrative goes deeper than expected, bypassing the conventional for a new revelation or, in some cases, refusing to go at all, but just leaving us with the understanding that some of life's mysteries have no simple solutions, though the failure to solve provides a deeper sense of the meaning of what is not obvious. I cannot praise this novel enough, though I believe that it is one that will be more admired than loved. It earns respect, it deserves enthusiasm. It demands careful and thoughtful reading and re-reading.
0Comment| 13 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on August 22, 2014
“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.
0Comment| One person found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on July 13, 2014
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.

Like the post-war Zone in Gravity's Rainbow, where for a brief moment, many alternate possibilities for the future exist before they're foreclosed by the System of the world we really live in, Song of the Shank explores a brief, post-war space (represented mostly by a fictional refugee island in New York for victims of the draft riots and freed slaves) where the future of race in America could have been set on a different course, with Tom perhaps playing an important role. Instead, the ideals of Reconstruction failed and the door to an alternate future was slammed shut.

With Pynchonesque alternate realities and Faulkner-inspired images of human dysfunction, but also with a voice that is unquestionably original and contemporary, this book was one of my favorite reads this year.
0Comment| 8 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on December 27, 2014
This is a most challenging novel. Although the prose is majestic, and the writer so obviously talented, the pacing is laggard. This novel fictionalizes the story of Blind Tom Wiggins who apparently was quite the entertaining pianist from an early age, beginning around 6. The story is set in the year after the civil war has ended, rambling around in time between 1866 and 1870. There are frequent shifts in perspective and setting, making this novel sometimes difficult to digest. Supposedly, Jeffery Allen took over 10 years to complete this novel, and maybe that accounts for the quick shifts in time, without giving the reader much context, and so it feels at times disconnected and disjointed.

Although one gets a sense of history from the story, you have to remain very focused as you peruse this book. I think if one is drawn to poetic prose, this is a book you will absolutely love. If you desire to have that prose married to heady pacing and readily identifiable settings and context, you will be underwhelmed. All in all it is a fascinating story of a riveting historical character, but it failed to be engrossing for me, and I could never get in a comfortable reading flow, hence the 2 stars.
0Comment| 2 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on March 26, 2016
It's impossible to answer the questions above because the writing is so florid and overwrought that it's almost impossible to follow the story and figure out who the characters really are and how they are connected. I almost always finish a book I start, but I couldn't stand any more after about 150 pages.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on September 22, 2014
Interesting tale; Allen makes the characters come alive.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on May 30, 2015
I can't say I loved it -- but I really needed to read through! To date, and I'm not a Civil War expert, but, I've never got such a vivid glimpse about antebellum, war years, and post years in both the South and in the North. It's a tale fraught with pain and shame. The central, historical figure "Blind Tom Wiggins" was enslaved in one way or another,from the moment of his birth until his death in 1908.

Kudos to Jeffrey Renaud Allen. His artful literary devices may have slowed down his readers, but we needed to read it slowly and let the ramifications of this tragedy sink in. Stream of consciousness -like text (in the third person) in 2-3 page long paragraphs definitely presents a challenge. It's not Faulkner, but it IS effective. Jumps in time and out of sequence episodes also made one reed and reread. It was well worth it.

We chose it as one of our bookclub selections. It won't be read by all members-- but it should be!
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on August 11, 2014
I read the breathless reviews. I awaited the book with excitement. I'm on page 51. I'm going to cry if there isn't a paragraph break soon. Somebody, please, give me a reason to keep going. Of course I want to read the book about the blind slave piano prodigy. But it's lost somewhere in the unceasing stream of words, words, WORDS.
11 comment| 8 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on June 8, 2015
I like novels which take me back into a certain period of history in a given place, so that in addition to enjoying the story line and the character development, I can expand my horizons about different times, places and cultures. This book attracted me because the true story of Blind Tom seemed fascinating, and because it takes place in the very interesting period just after the Civil War. I have to say, though, that it was a very tough read. I know I'm probably supposed to admire this writing style, like I should appreciate Joyce or Faulkner or cummings. But the truth is that I'm not that ambitious a reader. For me, the writing was confusing (who is saying what), and the little practice of adding a clarifier in parentheses to various words became a little annoying (why don't you or your editor choose the best word - isn't that what good writing is all about?). I finished the book, but for me it was a slog. That's more about me than about the author (who is talented) or the positive reviewers (who have different and more refined taste than me...).
0Comment| 2 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on July 24, 2014
I suspect that Song of the Shank may turn out to be one of the great novels of the 21st Century. Jeffrey Renard Allen has created a complex universe that is America from the beginning of the Civil War through Reconstruction, centered on the figure of Blind Tom, a musical genius (and a real person historically). It moves forward, backward, and sideways in time, always vivid and poetic, when slaves find themselves suddenly and unknowably free, pursued by torment into freedom. In my opinion he surpasses Invisible Man. His is a novelistic poem drawing from the depths of black experience in a way that translates Walt Whitman into contemporary knowing of what make America what it is. Beautiful and compelling
0Comment| One person found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse

Customers also viewed these items

Need customer service? Click here