Selected as WLRN's Sundial's January 2019 Book Club Pick
"Allen has created a consummate tragicomedy of African American family secrets and sorrows, and of faith under duress and wide open to interpretation. Perfect timing and crackling dialogue, as well as heartrending pain balanced by uproarious predicaments, make for a shout-hallelujah tale of transgression and grace, a gospel of lusty and everlasting love."
"Like Dostoyevsky, Allen colorfully evokes the gambling milieu--the chained (mis)fortunes of the players, their vanities and grotesqueries, their quasi-philosophical ruminations on chance. Like Burroughs, he is a dispassionate chronicler of the addict's daily ritual, neither glorifying nor vilifying the matter at hand."
--The New York Times Book Review, on All or Nothing
Into an austere community of Christian believers at the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters come the star-crossed African American Romeo and Juliet. In the world of Jesus Boy, Romeo is sixteen-year-old Elwyn Parker, a devout and sincere piano prodigy who learns too late that the saintly girl he has had a crush on all his life is inexplicably pregnant and soon to be wed. Juliet is the beautiful widow, Sister Morrisohn, age forty-two, who, in the pain and confused emotions of her grieving, ends up in Elwyn's arms.
Despite the problems posed by their age difference and the strict prohibitions of their strong religious beliefs, Elwyn and Sister Morrisohn's love is true, and as it grows among the ascetics, abstainers, and holy ghost rollers of their church, it exposes with wit, poignancy, and insight the dark secrets and ancient crimes of the pious. In Jesus Boy, Elwyn learns through tragedy and epiphany that the holy are no different from the rest of us.
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||697 KB|
About the Author
Preston L. Allen is a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship and author of the thriller Hoochie Mama, as well as the collection Churchboys and Other Sinners. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals and have been anthologized in Brown Sugar (Plume Penguin 2001) and Miami Noir (Akashic 2006). He lives in South Florida.
Read an Excerpt
By Preston L. Allen
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2010 Preston L. Allen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI. Testament of Innocence
I never really wanted to play the piano, but it seemed that even before I touched my first key I could.
When the old kindergarten teacher left to go have her baby, the new teacher made us sing: "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream ..."
"Elwyn," said the new teacher whose long name I could never remember, "why aren't you singing with us? Don't you know the words?"
Yes, I knew the words-just like I knew the words to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"-I had memorized them as soon as the old teacher, Mrs. Jones, had sung them to us the first time. But I could not sing the words. Mrs. Jones knew why I could not sing the words but not this new teacher.
"Elwyn, why won't you sing with us?"
I could not lie, but neither was I strong enough in the Lord to tell the teacher with the long name that singing secular music was a sin. So I evaded. I pointed to the piano and said, "Mrs. Jones plays the piano when we sing."
"But I can't play the piano," said the new teacher. "Won't you sing without the piano?"
I had assumed all adults could do a simple thing like play the piano, so this amazed me. "I'll show you how to play it," I said, crossing the room with jubilant feet.
"Can you play the piano, Elwyn?"
"Yes," I said. Though I had never touched a piano key before in my life, I had observed Mrs. Jones at school and the ministers of music at church and had developed a theory about playing I was anxious to test: high notes go up and low notes go down.
After a few tries, I was playing the melody with one finger. "See? Like this," I said. My theory was correct.
The other kids squealed with excitement. "Let me play, let me play," each cried.
What's the big deal? I wondered. High notes go up, low notes down. It only made sense.
But the new teacher had to give each one a turn and I directed them: "Up, up, now down, down. No. Up, up more."
When it came to be my turn again, I played "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The new teacher got the others to sing the tune as I played. I had but a child's understanding of God's Grace. I reasoned that if I sang secular words, I'd go to hell, but I had no qualms about playing the music while others sang.
I was young.
That day should have been the last time I played the piano because in truth my fascination with the instrument did not extend further than my theory of high and low tones, which I had sufficiently proven. No, I did not seek to be a piano player. I assumed, most innocently, that I already was one. Should I ever be called upon to play a tune, I would simply "pick it out" one note at a time. This was not to say, however, that I was not interested in music.
On the contrary, music was extremely important.
Demons, I was certain, frolicked in my room after the lights were turned off. At night, I watched, stricken with fear, as the headlights of passing automobiles cast animated shadows on the walls of my room. Only God, who I believed loved my singing voice, could protect me from the wickedness lurking in the dark. Thus, I sang all of God's favorite tunes-hummed when I didn't know the words-in order to earn His protection. When I ran out of hymns to sing, I made up my own.
I am Your child, God. I am Your child- It is real, real dark, but I am Your child.
God, I believed, was partial to high-pitched, mournful tunes with simple, direct messages. God was a brooder.
What did I know about His Grace?
What did I know about anything?
Ambition. Envy. Lust. Which was my sin?
I did not want my neighbor's wife. I did not want his servant. I did not want his ass. There was, however, a girl. Peachie. Brother and Sister Gregory's eldest daughter.
I had known her all of my life, but when she walked to the front of the church that Easter Sunday, sat down at the piano, and played "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"-my third-grade heart began to know envy and desire.
Peachie Gregory did not pick out tunes on the piano. No, she played with all of her fingers-those on her left hand too. Such virtuosity for a girl no older than I. And the applause!
That was what I wanted. I wanted to go before the congregation and lead them in song, but all I could do was play with one finger. I had to learn to play like Peachie.
An earnest desire to serve the church as a minister of music, then, did not compel me to press my parents-a maid and a school bus driver-for piano lessons, though that is what I claimed. When they said they could not afford piano lessons, much less a piano, I told them a necessary fiction.
"Angels flew down from heaven playing harps. They pointed to this great big giant piano. They wanted me to join them. I trembled because I knew I couldn't play the piano." I opened my eyes as wide as possible so as to seem more scared and innocent. "I have never taken any lessons."
"Were you asleep?" my father asked, one large hand clutching my shoulder, the other pushing his blue cap further up on his head, exposing the bald spot. "Was it a dream?"
Before I could answer, my mother jumped in: "He already told you he was wide awake. It was a vision. God is speaking to the child."
"You know how kids are," said my father, from out of whose pocket the money would come. He chuckled. "Elwyn's been wanting to play piano so bad, he begins to hear God and see visions. It could be a trick of the devil."
My mother shook a finger at him. "Elwyn should have been taking piano lessons a long time ago. He is special. God speaks to animals and children. Elwyn doesn't lie."
My father peered down at me with a look that said, Tell the truth boy, but I kept my eyes wide and innocent, still struck by the wondrous and glorious vision I had seen. My father said to my mother, "But we can't be so literal with everything. If it's a dream, maybe we need to interpret it."
"Interpret nothing!" shot back Isadore the maid, who pursued Roscoe the school bus driver to the far side of the room; he fell into his overstuffed recliner where it was customary for him to accept defeat. "You call yourself a Christian," she shouted, raising holy hands, "but you'd rather spend money at the track than on your own boy! Some Christian you are."
My father hung his head in shame. He was beaten.
He did, however, achieve a small measure of revenge. Instead of giving up his day at the track, he told my grandmother, that great old-time saint, about my "visions," and my grandmother, weeping and raising holy hands, told Pastor, and Pastor wrote my name on the prayer sheet.
How I cringed each week as Pastor read to the congregation, "And pray that God send Brother Elwyn a piano to practice on."
I believed that God would send one indeed-plummeting from heaven like a meteor to crash through the roof of the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters and land right on my head.
I had lied and liars shall have their part in the lake of fire.
I prayed, "Heavenly Father, I lied to them, but I am just a child. Cast me not into the pit where the worm dieth not."
Thank God for Brother Morrisohn and his ultrawhite false teeth. If he hadn't stood up and bought that piano for me, I would have surely died just like Ananias and Sapphira-struck down before the doors of the church for telling lies.
Brother Morrisohn was a great saint, a retired attorney who gave copiously of his time and energy-as well as his money-to the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters. It was his money that erected the five great walls of the church, his money through the Grace of God that brought us warmth in the winter and coolness in the hot Miami summer. It was his money that paid Pastor's salary in the '60s when the Holy Rollers built a church practically on our back lot and lured the weaker members of the flock away. After a fire destroyed the Rollers' chapel, it was Brother Morrisohn's money that purchased the property back from the bank, putting the Rollers out of business for good.
"I can't sit by and watch God's work go undone," he always said.
On the day they delivered the secondhand upright piano, he told me, "You're going to be a great man of God, Elwyn," and he extended his forefingers like pistols and rattled a few keys.
He was already in his seventies by then, but lean and healthy and proud of his looks. His full head of gray hair, which he parted stylishly down the middle, was a contrast to his dark, handsome complexion. He always wore a jacket and tie and carried a gold-tipped cane. Grinning, he showed his much-too-white false teeth. "I love music, but I never learned to play. Maybe someday you'll teach me."
"I will," I said. I had just turned eight.
"I wish you would teach him, Elwyn," said Sister Morrisohn, the wife who was about half Brother Morrisohn's age. From a distance she could be mistaken for a white woman with her fair skin and her long black hair cascading down her back. She was the prettiest woman at church, everyone always said, though she had her ways, whatever that meant. She removed her shawl and draped it lovingly over his shoulders. "We have that big piano at home no one ever plays."
"I'm not cold," Brother Morrisohn protested, frowning, but he did not remove the lacy shawl. He rattled the keys again.
"I'll teach you piano, Brother Morrisohn," I said.
He reached down and patted my head. "Thank you, Elwyn."
I was so happy. I hadn't had my first lesson yet, but I sat down on the wobbly stool and made some kind of music on that piano.
A little after midnight, my father emerged from the bedroom and drove me to bed.
"Goodnight, goodnight, goodnight," he sang, accentuating each beat with a playful open-palm slap to my rump. It was a victory for him too. Just that weekend he had won $300 at the track. It didn't seem to bother him that my mother had demanded half the money and set it aside for my piano lessons.
Every night I offered a prayer of thanksgiving, certain God had forgiven me.
Peachie Gregory was another thing entirely.
Peachie Gregory-with those spidery limbs and those bushy brows that met in the center of her forehead and that pouting mouth full of silver braces-I didn't completely understand it when I first saw her play the piano, but I wanted her almost as much as I envied her talent.
She dominated my thoughts when I was awake, and in time I began seeing her in my progressively worsening dreams-real dreams, not made-up visions-dreams of limbs brushing limbs, and lips whispering into lips in a parody of holy prayer. Then I began manipulating my thoughts to ensure that my dreams would include her. At my lowest, I dreamt about her without benefit of sleep.
By age thirteen, when I began to use my hands, I knew I was bound for hell.
I couldn't turn to my parents, so one Sunday I went to the restroom to speak with Brother Morrisohn.
He said, "Have you prayed over the matter?"
"Yes," I answered, "but the Lord hasn't answered yet."
He smiled, showing those incredible teeth. "Maybe He has and you just don't understand His answer. I'm sure He's leaving it up to you."
"Leaving it up to me?"
We stood inside the combination men's washroom and lounge his money had built. Four stand-up stalls and four sit-down stalls lined one wall. A row of sinks lined another. In the center of the room, five plush chairs formed a semicircle around a floor-model color television. We were between services, so a football game was airing. Otherwise, the television would have picked up the closed-circuit feed and broadcast the service to the Faithful who found it necessary to be near the facilities. These days Brother Morrisohn, pushing close to his promised four score, attended most services by way of this floor-model television. His Bible, hymnal, and gold-tipped cane rested in one of the chairs.
"I don't care what anyone tells you, God gets upset when we turn to Him for everything. Sometimes we've got to take responsibility. Elwyn, it's your mind and your hand, and you must learn to control them. Otherwise, why don't you just blame God for every sin you commit? God made you kill. God made you steal. God made you play with yourself."
Brother Morrisohn was so close I could smell his cologne. His teeth made a ticking sound each time his jaw moved. Suddenly, he began to tremble and coughed a reddish glob into his hands. He moved quickly to the faucet and washed it down, sighing, "Age. Old age." Then he turned off the faucet and looked down at me with an embarrassed smile.
I said to him, "What about the dreams?"
"The nasty dreams about ... Peachie."
"God controls the dreams," Brother Morrisohn explained. "They're not your fault."
"Control your hands."
Brother Morrisohn was himself again. In his black suit and tie, he stood tall and handsome. All signs of weakness had vanished. Old age would not get the victory. God would get the victory.
He mused, "Peachie Gregory, huh?" The old saint pointed with his chin to the television. "That was Peachie last Sunday backing up Sister McGowan's boy, wasn't it? She's a talented girl. She and that Barry McGowan make a great team. He can really sing."
Now Barry was not my favorite brother in the Lord. Barry was a show-off, and he had flirted with Peachie in the past even though he was much too old for her. He was a high school senior. But now I smiled because soon he would be out of the way. "Barry just got a scholarship to Bible College," I announced.
"Good for him. He's truly blessed. But that Peachie is a cute girl, isn't she?" Brother Morrisohn chuckled mischievously. "If you're dreaming about her, Elwyn, by all means enjoy the dreams."
I handed him his cane. He patted me on the head.
He was a great saint.
Praise be to God, as I grew in age, I grew in wisdom and in grace. With His righteous sword I was able to control my carnal side.
While she lived often in my waking thoughts, it was only occasionally that I dreamt about Peachie anymore, and even less frequently were the dreams indecent. Awake, I marveled at how through the Grace of God I was able to control my mind and my hand.
At sixteen, I counted Peachie as my best friend and sister in the Lord. We both served as youth ministers. Together, we went out into the field to witness to lost souls. As a pianist, she demonstrated a style that reflected her classical training. Disdaining my own classical training (we both had Sister McGowan for piano teacher), I relied on my ear to interpret music. Thus, on first and third Sundays of every month, she was minister of music for the stately adult choir; on second and fourth Sundays, I played for the more upbeat youth choir. As different as our tastes were, we emulated each other's style. I'd steal a chord change from her. She'd borrow one of my riffs. We practiced together often.
By the Grace of God, genuine affection, however guarded, had replaced the envy and lust I felt for Peachie as a child.
Thus, when Brother Morrisohn passed in the late summer of '79, it was my best friend Peachie whom I called for support.
"They want me to play," I said.
"You should. He was very close to you."
"But my style may not be appropriate. When I get emotional, my music becomes too raucous."
"Do you think it really matters?"
I tried to read Peachie's words. For the past few weeks she had grown cranky and I had chastised her more than once for her sarcasm, which bordered on meanness.
"Yes," I said. "I think it matters. It's the funeral of a man I loved dearly."
"Well don't look to me to bail you out. Play what's in the book."
"I hate playing that way."
"Then play like you know how to play. Play for the widow. Play for Brother Morrisohn. Play like you have thirty fingers."
"Okay. I just hope the choir can keep up."
"We can," Peachie assured.
Then we talked about what songs I would play and in what order and some other mundane things, and then somehow Peachie ended up saying, "Don't worry, Elwyn. The Lord will see that you do fine. And I'll be there watching you too."
"Bless His name," I said.
"Glory be to God," she said.
So it was a funeral, but you wouldn't know it from my playing.
Keep up, choir, I thought. I'm syncopating. Keep up!
Excerpted from Jesus Boy by Preston L. Allen Copyright © 2010 by Preston L. Allen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"Heartfelt and occasionally hilarious, Jesus Boy is a tender masterpiece."
Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River and The Given Day
"Jesus Boy is one of those books that makes you sit up and go . . . WHAT? No novel should be this enthralling. With a mesmerizing style, Preston L. Allen offers sentences that you reread becasue of their sheer enchantment and sense of wonder they invoke . . . in magical prose that lights up the pages. This is a novel unlike any I've ever read and among the very best of the decade. What a joy to read a book you can truly call a contemporary classic."
Ken Bruen, author of Sanctuary and The Guards
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"Jesus Boy" is basically is a tragedy in the vein of Shakespearean form. It is about Elwyn and the loss of innocence and the attempt to apply biblical principles to circumstances without understanding of conviction or the fallacies of human nature. Immaturity, spirituality and biology clash resulting in increased disappointments for which Elwyn has to rationalize while being caught in the throes of lust and disenfranchisements of his church family. While his natural talent increases, he mistakes it for approval of God as his musical talent becomes leverage for spiritual acceptance and self defeat. "Jesus Boy" is full of unexpected twists and twistedness. Preston Allen is successful in making Elwyn affable, but Elwyn's choices make his end destructive although the reader continues to hope for the best. The depth of depravity is tempered. The humor and originality of the voice of this author is unique and poignant. I would recommend this book as it is the seed for a harvest of discussions. Reviewed by: Gail
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)Regular readers know that I believe the key to a successful novel to be the combination of an exciting plot and deep characterization; but if I'm forced to choose only one or the other in any particular book, I think it's clear by now that I generally prefer the former over the latter, in that stories featuring barely-defined characters doing interesting things tend to be inherently more entertaining in my head than ones where interesting people sit around doing nothing. So I'm always excited, then, when I come across the rare character-heavy novel that I end up liking quite a bit; take for example the recently released Jesus Boy by Florida professor Preston L. Allen, author of the previous gambling novel All Or Nothing which also garnered quite a bit of praise, both of which were put out by our pals at Akashic Books, who in the last few years has seemed almost incapable of making a wrong move. I thought today, then, I would take the opportunity to do an actual analytical examination of what makes this such a great character-driven novel when so many others fail so spectacularly at it, as a way of hopefully passing along a few tips to fellow writers out there who are struggling over the same issues; because believe me, Jesus Boy is an almost textbook example of how to put together an intriguing and page-flipping yet plot-light story, and it's no wonder that Akashic signed this despite it having little to do with the subversive culture and hipster characters that define most of the other titles in their catalog.As you can imagine, step one with books like these is to create a fascinating milieu for your characters to inhabit, which Allen does: he in fact sets this book within the world of radical Protestant churches in rural south Florida with mostly black congregations, the kinds of groups with names like "The Holy Rollers" who consider even Southern Baptists to be timid wannabes, and who create elaborate conservative moral codes for their members which often contradict themselves in their specific rules. And indeed, that's what makes this milieu so fascinating, is that as human beings, the desires of these groups' members often come into direct conflict with the restrictive code of behavior they are trying to maintain; and this is in fact what Allen mostly examines in Jesus Boy, the various ways that the private lives of his expansive cast betray their public lives as the religiously pious, and the ways these schisms affect the long-term lives of these characters over the course of approximately half a century and several generations, from roughly the Jim Crow 1940s to the hiphop 1990s.Now of course, this particular milieu is also ripe for easy, lazy stereotyping -- after all, it's these organizations that spawn most of our nation's televangelists -- which leads to my second tip concerning such novels, that they require not only fascinating environments but unique and compelling looks at these environments; and this Allen also does, centering the tale around the complex "Jesus Boy" of the book's title, a naturally gifted piano player who was hailed by his church at a young age as a zealous musical warrior for God, and who then struggles for the rest of his life over the balance between his spirituality and his heathen side, complicated even further by his decades-long secret relationship with a MILF-like older church member (during their first tryst, he's 16 and she's 42), as well as his manytimes humorous multicultural adventures at the secular state university he ends up attending. This then leads us to a closer examination of his lover as well, who turns out to have had a very similar experience in her past but that time playing the younger role, which as the novel progresses we learn is tied in complicate
I enjoyed reading this novel. The author describe every detail about the romance,
In "Jesus Boy", author, Preston L. Allen, does an awesome job of describing the different types of drama, sin, Christians, and hypocrites all rolled into one. Elwyn Parker's constant struggle with Christianity and lust proves to be a dominant issue throughout the story. "It is a cross between an African American Romeo and Juliet. Elwyn Parker, a sixteen year old devout Christian and piano prodigy, who learns that the saintly girl that he has a crush on is pregnant and is to wed another. Juliet is the beautiful widow, Sister Morrisohn, age 42 who in the pain and confused emotions of her grieving, ends up in Elwyn's arms. Despite the age difference and strong religious beliefs, Elwyn and sister Morrisohn fall in love. Secrets began to emerge in this dark and twisted tale and as tragedy strikes Elwyn realizes that no one is different." Preston L. Allen does a wonderful job of keeping the reader interested and wanting to turn the page faster but yet turn back to make sure nothing was missed. The story moves along at a wonderful pace to keep the reader interested and intrigued at the same time. It involves family secrets, friendship, and faith, betrayal by family, sin, love, abuse, human weakness. Even though the story goes where most "Christians" don't want to go. Preston takes us there and takes us for a great ride! Great read! Review: 5 out of 5 Beignets Reviewed by: Melanie Books and Beignets (BAB) Book Club
Preston Allen has written a winning novel. Characterization is excellent and is the essence of the story he tells about the hypocrisy within conservative Christianity. Clearly shown is a conflict between the mores of a culture and the religious beliefs it aspires to. The protagonist realizes the hypocrisy of his own actions, and although the reader wants him to forgive himself, he does not quite manage to accomplish this feat. The author blends humor into the telling of his story, giving us characters we have all known.