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Five-Carat Soul


Five-Carat Soul

Encountering James McBride’s FIVE-CARAT SOUL wasn’t the result of waiting with a fan’s bated breath for what might follow his National Book Award-winning novel, THE GOOD LORD BIRD (2013). If that were true, I might sound a bit more legitimate and informed in reflecting on the considerable cultural art of McBride’s prose. The honest truth is that I was looking for a collection of short stories, any short stories, so I could start and finish something in one sitting and live there for a while.

FIVE-CARAT SOUL combines stand-alone stories (“The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” “Father Abe,” “The Moaning Bench,” “The Christmas Dance” and “The Fish Man Angel”) with two novellas (“The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band” and “Mr. P and the Wind”), connected by related stories or chapters.

Perhaps my lack of expectation or precedent was a good thing after all, leaving me open to a rich flood of impressions from a writer whose range of material and nuances are a continual and enlightening surprise. FIVE-CARAT SOUL came into my hands and the pages just kept turning.

Interestingly, McBride doesn’t begin this memorable collection of previously unpublished work with the evocative set mirrored by the book’s title. Instead, he first moves slightly to the periphery of black American culture to explore the world of a Jewish dealer in rare toys.

Leo Banskoff manages to track down the owner of a unique train set made for the son of General Robert E. Lee and successfully acquires the vintage treasure for clients to whom money is no object. That in itself would be a remarkable tale of twists and turns, but the real story --- the story McBride tells with such riveting insight --- is that of the elusive and often inscrutable owner. Through it, the reader senses America’s complex relationship with poverty and presumption, an uneasy cultural counterpoint that seems to finish on an unsettling open chord.

"McBride’s vigorous narrative and imagery flow through a tapestry of regional and period dialects that bring these long-ago and far-away characters to life."

As in some of his best known previous writing, McBride searches out unjustly forgotten details of history and builds compelling scenes and characters around them, enlarging truth rather than distorting it. Through stories like “Father Abe,” “The Fish Man Angel” and“The Christmas Dance” --- all inspired by the senseless waste of lives and deprivation during the American Civil War and Second World War --- McBride deftly folds vast universal issues into achingly immediate ones.

A young mixed-race orphan wandering into a ragged encampment of Colored Infantry Regiment soldiers is convinced that his real father is Abraham Lincoln. A black coachman serving President Lincoln is overheard late one night inflicting cruel racism on a fellow black brother and his son. An ambitious history PhD student struggles to understand why the only surviving pair of WWII veterans from the all-black 92nd Division, slaughtered in a surprise German attack in Italy, don’t eagerly share a story adamantly forgotten by the U.S. Army.

McBride’s vigorous narrative and imagery flow through a tapestry of regional and period dialects that bring these long-ago and far-away characters to life.

On the eccentric and darkly humorous side, “The Moaning Bench” dabbles in speculative, slightly supernatural territory, as a mysterious and malicious judge verbally torments a motley assortment of humans suspended in purgatorial limbo. The amusing twist centers on how their fate is reversed, all done through McBride’s impeccable pacing and comedic timing.

Even more eccentric and appealing, sometimes even baffling, is “Mr. P and the Wind,” a five-chapter novella set in an urban zoo where the dynamics of life in the wild are but a distant memory. The interspecies thought transmissions have become chaotic, outrageous, even traumatic. But the animals haven’t forgotten everything…

The stories that left me with the most powerful in-your-face feeling, however, are the character pieces --- “Buck Boy,” “Ray-Ray’s Picture Box,” “Blub” and “Goat” --- drawn around a group of tenacious slum kids comprising the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band.

There’s a pervasive cinematic quality about McBride’s gritty imagery of life in a rundown black urban neighborhood where many impoverished families routinely go without electricity, water, medical care and basic schooling, simply because they can’t afford it. The young teen boys, whose identities and hopes are focused on the ragtag musical combo they’ve put together, try to figure out their lives during the Vietnam War era amid conflicting messages about their value (or lack of it) to American society.

The worlds from which McBride crafted FIVE-CARAT SOUL are places completely foreign to my experience; they have a history, culture and vocabulary all their own. So you’d think that would eliminate readers whose lives haven’t been formed and touched by such visceral deep contact. But the exact opposite is true, and that’s where McBride’s brilliance shines. He turns readers from invading tourists into welcomed travelers.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on September 29, 2017

Five-Carat Soul
by James McBride

  • Publication Date: September 25, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0735216703
  • ISBN-13: 9780735216709