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on July 7, 2014
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.