by Jeffrey Renard Allen
Graywolf Press, 2008
Reviewed by Jonathan Maxwell
It is a well-proven but often-ignored truth that a literary work can be both brilliant and difficult to read. Such is the case with Jeffery Renard Allen’s new short story collection, Holding Pattern. There is no question that Allen’s latest work is a distinguished one. His characterizations are vivid, his descriptions of setting are poetic, and his exploration of African-American themes is brave. Allen appears to be black America’s answer to William S. Burroughs, the celebrated author of Naked Lunch. Holding Pattern shares the same strengths of Burroughs’s work. It is unorthodox, experimental, and surrealistic. However, it also shares Naked Lunch’s flaws, which, ironically, stem from its strengths. Experimental works, after all, are challenging.
Allen hints at the complexity of the work in the preface. He offers a note: Though the name Hatch appears in many of the stories that follow, the reader should not assume that this name represents a single, reappearing character. The reader, then, instantly realizes that this work is an innovative one. Lovers of the avant-garde will probably find this statement to be compelling. More conservative readers, though, will probably find it to be jarring.
Allen’s strongest story in the collection is perhaps “Shimmy.” This is due in part because of its characterization, but mostly because it seems to be the most lucid one in the collection. “Shimmy” is about an affluent black professional, Lee Christmas, who toils to re-enter the dating scene. This premise sounds light-hearted, but the story is in fact nightmarish. The author’s descriptions of Lee Christmas are quite good, even if they do meander about somewhat. He describes Lee’s turbulent upbringing in Mississippi, the horrific deaths of his parents, as well as the death of his odd, superstitious wife. Such examinations are needless. Nevertheless, they make the Christmas character even more interesting. He begins dating Peanut, a nice, if unintelligent, young mother. He agrees to take Peanut and her son to the zoo. Lee looks forward to meeting the child. However, the meeting between the suitor and Boo is horrible. Although Boo is only seven, he is foul-mouthed, loud, and boorish. [Allen seems to be obsessed with thuggish young black males. They feature prominently in virtually every story of the book]. Lee then attempts to “reach” the at-risk youth.
The story is often gripping. Still, it possesses significant weaknesses. Allen often abruptly changes genres. The first portion of the tale is naturalistic, offering a bleak portrait of ghetto life and the struggle to escape it. Then, suddenly, “Shimmy” takes a supernatural turn. Lee comes home one evening and discovers Loretta (his soon-to-be-dead wife) in the bedroom copulating with a man who is apparently a ghost. Upon seeing Lee, the mysterious man vanishes into thin air. The average reader would naturally assume that “Shimmy” is a horror story, and that the ghost would become a major character. Neither assumption would be correct, however. After this brief incident, nothing more is said about the apparition. Allen shifts the story back to the original naturalistic mold. The remaining portion of “Shimmy” concentrates on Loretta’s death and Lee’s arduous attempts to start a new family.
The story “Holding Pattern” is also strong, albeit somewhat confusing. Once again, the reader encounters a troubled black male. The main character is Pea, a small-time criminal. This young man is arrested by the police and taken to the station. Once again, the tone is naturalistic- at first, anyway. The arresting officers decide not to detain him. Instead, they introduce him to a “resident,” an old black man whom Pea calls “Pops.” Pops tells him that he can fly. Of course, Pea does not believe him. Then, Pops takes off his shirt to reveal wings. He even flies around in his jail cell while Pea watches him in amazement. Somehow, Pops endows Pea with this flying ability. Pea is then released. It seems likely that the flying ability is a metaphor for black empowerment. However, the tale ends on a note that is anticlimactic.
“Holding Pattern” is even more befuddling than “Shimmy.” The first half of the story presents gritty realism, while the second half offers garish fantasy. The conversations within this story are frustrating as well. Being trivial and irrelevant, they do not progress the story along. The eccentricities of Allen’s work are admirable, but, simultaneously, they seem to stall dramatic interest.
The other tales in the book are not even true stories. More or less, they are impressionistic vignettes. “Mississippi Story” is about an educated black Texan returning to his ancestral roots near Tupelo. Early on, the reader is introduced to a truly bizarre character: a local black man who dresses in a Confederate uniform. The introduction is delicious. The reader immediately suspects that this strange figure will be a major character. Perhaps, the Texan will confront him. Such intriguing scenarios never materialize, though. No more is written about him. Instead, Allen describes additional scenery, and his Texan further ponders the New South. There is really no plot, no tension, and no denouement. The writing is exquisite, but since this is not a true story, it is hard to connect with any of the characters.
“Dog Tags” is gorgeously written as well. The story begins with this grand sentence: "Through a window fogged with his breath, Hatch can see the first and last cars at once as the train curls slowly around the mountain, a giant horseshoe, the other cars- he counts them- like a string of scattered islands, an archipelago.” The book is full of rich sentences. Most of “Dog Tags” poignantly explores family dynamics. The ending, though, is inscrutable, featuring a winged monkey.
“Bread and the Land” is especially disappointing. The “story” concerns Hatch, a defiant black youth forced to live with his aged grandmother. Early on, Allen informs the reader that the grandmother has a grotesque past. She had long been married to a mortician who had been suspected of abusing corpses left in his care. Allen writes that, “Rumor had it that he disrespected bodies placed in his care…He carved tic-tac-toe on skin. He stuffed hollow cavities with marbles. He drained insides with a garden hose. He embalmed with shoe polish.” This information excites the reader, but nothing more is written about the mortician and no secret is revealed. Instead, he or she is barraged with flowery imagery and tiresome arguments between Hatch and the grandmother.
Holding Pattern is recommended for adventurous readers. Other persons might want to stick with more traditional literary fare.
JONATHAN MAXWELL is an Atlanta-based writer and editor. His first book, Murderous Intellectuals: German Elites and the Nazi SS, debuts in May 2009. His most recent work is Piltdown Man and Other Hoaxes, a lighthearted examination of scientific frauds through history.