It’s been quite a run lately for Civil War-era African Americans. Not only was Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, adapted into a triple Academy Award winner (including Best Picture), but now author Jeffery Renard Allen has resurrected the career—if perhaps not quite the true life story—of Thomas Greene Wiggins, also known as Blind Tom, in his second novel, Song of the Shank. Wiggins was perhaps the most unlikely of stars ever thrust on the international stage; sightless, probably autistic, heavyset (though somewhat handsome in a rough-hewn way) and, for the first 16 years of his life, a slave.

Some people have suggested that Blind Tom never ultimately escaped his "previous condition of servitude," but that’s another story for another time.

In many ways, Allen treats language in Song of the Shank the way an Impressionist approached paint: a little color laid on a canvas in a bold swipe meant to signify something much more complex than itself. Stand too close, and it’s a nearly indecipherable jumble of form and light and shadow; step back, and an image emerges, but it calls upon all the senses of the viewer to bring it into focus and give it meaning.

Allen is remarkably fluid with time and perspective as well. The novel opens in 1866, but hopscotches back as far as 1849 and forward to 1869, roughly the first third of Blind Tom’s life. And while some of that extraordinary life has been fairly well documented—Wiggins was the first African American ever to give a command performance at the White House, at the request of President James Buchanan—many of its details are speculative. It’s here that Allen grabs the reins and gallops as if astride a thoroughbred. While some critics have compare his storytelling to that of Beckett, Pynchon and Gabriel García Márquez, perhaps the more appropriate point of reference is Walter Mosley’s depiction of Robert Johnson in his 1995 tour de force, RL’s Dream.

Unlike Johnson, Blind Tom didn’t leave any actual recordings behind (though pianist John Davis released an excellent re-creation of Wiggins’ work in 2000), but both of their lives were surrounded by myth, and the gaps allow Allen a wide berth in reimagining a mosaic that forms a fairly complete, if somewhat fragmented, portrait.

That he pieced together anything readable at all, given the paucity of actual documentary evidence, is testament to the tenacity of Allen’s decade-long research journey and his narrative prowess. But that’s damning the novel with faint praise. He’s managed to gather the caustic consequences of fame, a mini-history of American race relations, Reconstruction, the solitary interior life of an artist, and a whole lot more, between the covers of a book worthy of any attentive reader’s notice.

 

Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, less than a mile from where Ray Charles, Lowell Fulson and Ella Fitzgerald are buried.

 

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