Rails under My Back

Rails under My Back

by Jeffery Renard Allen

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An astonishing debut novel, exploring the bonds, boundaries, and bondage of an African American family.

Rails Under My Back is a daring work of art that reveals its family theme in a stunning depiction of its paradoxically opposite: abandonment. In this multifaceted, brilliantly colored, intensely musical novel, Jeffery Renard Allen tracks the interwoven lives of

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An astonishing debut novel, exploring the bonds, boundaries, and bondage of an African American family.

Rails Under My Back is a daring work of art that reveals its family theme in a stunning depiction of its paradoxically opposite: abandonment. In this multifaceted, brilliantly colored, intensely musical novel, Jeffery Renard Allen tracks the interwoven lives of two brothers, Lucius and John Jones, who are married to two sisters, Gracie and Sheila McShan. For them, their parents, and their children, life is always full of departures; someone is always fleeing town and leaving the remaining family to suffer the often dramatic, sometimes tragic consequences. The multiple effects of the comings and goings are devastating: these are the almost mythic expression of the African American experience during the past half-century.

Rails Under My Back ranges, as the characters do, from the City, which is somewhat like both New York and Chicago, to Memphis, to the West, and to many "inner" and "outer" locales. One image that holds the family together is that of the railroads taking them from place to place-from the South to the North, from their living to their working quarters, from one form of bondage or freedom to another. The McShans and the Joneses somehow prevail, in their bigger-than-life way, and their story has extraordinary literary, religious, and historical power. Allen's voice is unforgettable.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The charged metaphor of the railroad serves as the spine of this vigorous and imaginative debut, an epic novel chronicling the lives and loves of two brothers, Lucifer and John Jones, and their wives, sisters Gracie and Sheila McShan. Nearly eight years in the writing, Allen's complex, ambitious story of an extended African-American family examines the emotional and spiritual costs of progress and change as the two men grapple with the choices and responsibilities of marriage and parenting. Theirs is a clan always on the move between a big city that's a hybrid of New York and Chicago, Memphis and the West, and the departures and arrivals affect the stability of all, either strengthening the familial bonds or causing chaos and pain. The personalities of the two patriarchs, level-headed Lucifer and restless John, dominate the lengthy, sometimes perplexing narrative. Though different in temperament, the brothers are inseparable, sharing a small flat with their wives at the start of their marriages, celebrating their wedding anniversaries together. Allen tells their stories as well as those of their children, Portia, Hatch and Jesus, in a rapid series of episodes, often recalled in a nonlinear style from different vantage points. The vignettes tell of Sheila and Gracie's upbringing by their kind aunt, Miss Beulah, after they are abandoned by their mother; Lucifer's courtship of Sheila; the brothers' experiences in an unspecified war; the deaths of two of John and Gracie's babies; John's abuse and abandonment of his wife; and Jesus' brutal arrest after a violent confrontation with the family. Allen's multilayered exploration of the themes of abandonment, survival, love, emotional irresponsibility and redemption is original, but his dense, challenging fictional style, intermingling myth, cultural folklore and vernacular language, demands the reader's unflagging attention. For those who stay the course, however, the wondrous journey is rewarding. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Although not completely successful from a narrative standpoint, Allen's first novel is a literary tour de force--a raw, powerful, and often poetic evocation of the modern, urban African American experience and the themes of family and abandonment. Told in alternating voices, this complex tale spans both generations and locales, relating the comings and goings of the McShans and the ties that bind them, with everything linked by a winding railroad metaphor. The story centers on the sons of two brothers married to two sisters whose roots are in the rural South. Hatch is a musician and dreamer, Jesus a wanna-be gangsta whose ambitions demand the assassination of his own father as payback for a ripoff. Not for the timid or the politically correct, this book offers language as blunt and realistic as its characterizations. Not likely to be a "popular" book, it is nonetheless an important one, giving a new voice to the African American experience. For all academic and all but the smallest public libraries.--David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher

“A tour de force.” —Chicago Tribune

“Besides Joyce and Faulkner, other twentieth-century novelists whose work Allen's calls to mind are Dos Passos, Ellison and Henry Roth--an indication of the remarkable literary company in which this novel may be seen to move.” —The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.31(h) x 1.71(d)

Read an Excerpt

An Excerpt from Rails Under My Back by Jeffrey Renard Allen

Hit me in the eye
Maybe then maybe then
I'll be better
--Traditional Blues Verse
Part One

Seasonal Travel


Long before Jesus entered the world, blades of southern grass sliced up the soles of his grandmother's feet. Her blood leaped from danger, drew back from the farthest reaches of her heart, and the roots of her soul pulled away from the sharp earth which had nurtured her. But nothing escapes the laws of gravity. We martyr to motion. In step with the flowing sweep of her garments, an undercurrent of rhythm, she cut the final strings of attachment, her children, and on a rich spring day cut a red path to New Mexico -- what business had a nigger there; New Mexicans had yet to invent the word -- for a man eternally bound to a rakish fedora, his sweet face like a mask beneath it, pinstripe suit, diamond horseshoe tiepin, and two-toned patent-leather shoes. Drawn by the power of nostalgia -- Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour -- she swept back two years later without a word about her lover, the father of R.L., her oldest child. A decade later he would be thrown through the windshield of his sparkling green (red?) Edsel (Eldorado?) -- the squeal before the thud, the skid after -- his decapitated body slipping the surly bonds of earth, sailing kitelike over a California highway, arcing over and beyond a thicket of treetops, to touch the face of God. Jesus was convinced that her exodus had strangled any impulse her surviving children -- his mother and aunt -- had to get close to her, and had ripped open his life, for an eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow. The years only deepened the sorrow his family had in common. Even a hatred like hot ice could not halt destiny.

Jesus thought he could never recover from his grandmother's betrayal. While his mother and aunt had long purged their thoughts and feelings of the act -- it escaping through the back of their heads, into space -- it continued to haunt him, a wallet photograph that he carried everywhere. He moved with a sort of amazement in the world, anger fueling the furnace of his heart. With ceremonial rigidity, each day he wore red, symbol of his unflagging fury.

He leaned over and spit. The saliva held and gleamed, suspended, rust-flecked, then curved down to the pavement. Crashed, sizzled, and cooled. A red coin. He leaned over to pick it up, but the coin refused his touch. Sirens sailed into the sky, a spiral of red sound. He drew himself erect. A strip of white asphalt stretched hot before him. He walked. Only his brain moved. Tall earth-rooted wrought iron fences hovered before a cluster of houses. And beyond the fences, black and green rhythm of trees. Trees full of birds, plentiful as leaves. The vapor-kissed spires and steeples of North Park. The sky in fanning torches and soaring flames. And heavy white clouds hovering, flying saucers. The street opened into a broader one, the space between two massive rows of skyscrapers black with a continuous throng, two busy streams of ants. He walked with long scissors stride for Lawrence Street, where he would catch the train to South Lincoln. The cradle of the week, the sunny street filled with competitive radios, anxious engines, car horns, hawking of wares, footsteps, and conversation -- disembodied voices -- a kiss thrown from the lips of the square, floating, rising, and hanging above it. The sidewalk streamed with city sprinklers pulsing wet rhythm. Jesus sang:

Shine went below deck, eating his peas
Til the water come up to his knees
He felt air currents from the movement of cars, shoes, skirts. Rumble and rustle tingling the blood in his rubber-soled feet. Suits and ties and skirts and heels were beginning to change color in the spring heat. A constant weight in their faces, the suits and ties lugged briefcases, newspapers tucked under the left arm. The skirts and heels sported ankle socks and gym shoes -- tennis shoes, his grandmother called them -- as if they gon shoot some b-ball in the office, arc crumpled bills (fives, tens, twenties) into steel wastebaskets. Cut a V for the express train into Central, slowed somewhat by purses bulging with thick paperback novels. A flyer curved around a lamppost: Motherfuck the War! A hang-tailed hound jogged out of an alley -- Jesus hoped he would stay within range -- and past a knot of beggars hunched over in a corner doorway, rained-on ghosts.

Kind sir, could you --

Hell nawl. Jesus did not pause in his walking. Get a job.

Go to hell and take yo mamma wit you, just for company.

Jesus kept walking.

Cheap nigga.

Jesus kept walking.

Goofy-looking motherfucka.

Bitch, Jesus said, stopping, turning at the beggar, facing the spit-thickened beard. Wash the fart out yo draws. He continued on.

He hadn't gone far when stench stopped him. Eighth and Lawrence, the subway entrance -- A blind man could find it. Follow your nose -- a funky mouth, with worn, broken, and dirty stairs like neglected teeth, descending to a dark throat. The subway breathed him in. He tugged at his ear, his fingers rough against the diamond there. He knew all about the purse and chain snatchers who rode the trains. Rough niggas versed in all tricks of the trade, killin, stealin, and gankin to get paid. Once, he saw a thief hack off a woman's earlobes with a straight razor to loot her diamond earrings. The thief wiped the blood from his razor onto her blouse, slowly and smoothly, as if buttering a bread slice, and Jesus wondered if the woman screamed from the sight of blood, from the pain, or from the sensation of reaching for her lobes to discover they were no longer there.

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Meet the Author

Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of two poetry collections, two novels, and a story collection. His essays, reviews, fiction, and poetry have appeared in many publications and anthologies. Born in Chicago, he holds a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a professor of English at Queens College, as well as an instructor in the writing program at the New School and at New York University. He is the fiction director at the Norman Mailer Center Writers Colony and has also taught for Cave Canem, the Farafina Writers Workshop in Lagos, the VONA workshop for writers of color, the Summer Literary Seminars program in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Nairobi, Kenya, and in the writing program at Columbia University.

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