The National Book Award winner for “The Good Lord Bird” releases his first collection of short fiction, all set in a working-class black neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
by James McBride
Riverhead, 320 pp., $27
The writer and musician James McBride proves once again that he is a master conjurer of African Americana with his new book of charmed, imaginative short stories, “Five-Carat Soul.”
The title is worthy of note primarily because that phrase winds up in a quartet of associated tales in this collection that are all set in a working-class black neighborhood in Pittsburgh known by locals as The Bottom. That’s where a motley group of five kid musicians have formed the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band, which tirelessly rehearses above a Chinese grocery and takeout joint in preparation for extremely scarce gigs.
Full of humor, down-home vernacular and slightly twisted nostalgia, McBride’s coming-of-age stories about this crew’s adventures go down like warm milk sneakily spiked with a shot of whiskey.
In “Buck Boy,” the hilarious teen narrator and his bandmates witness the aftermath as Mr. Woo fatally shoots a 17-year-old tough named Buck Boy, who robs his store. Soon, the Rev. Jenkins, a slick minister with a fondness for candy-color suits, other people’s home cooking and protest marches, organizes demonstrations against Mr. Woo to run him out of the neighborhood and get justice for Buck Boy, who nobody even liked when he was alive but who has become a hero and symbol of racial oppression in death.
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“Ray-Ray’s Picture Box” tells what happens when Ray-Ray, the little brother of a band member, shows off a box of his dad’s nudie pictures to the fellas at the secret neighborhood hangout, only to have an older kid from the neighborhood commandeer the box and start selling the photos for 25 cents apiece.
“Nothing in my life put me ready to look at them pictures,” the same narrator from the previous story tells us. “It put girls in a whole new light … There was all types of girls, doing all types of things.”
Childhood and children’s brushes with grown-up concerns recur as themes in “Five-Carat Soul.”
In “Father Abe,” a mixed-race boy living in the Confederacy who goes by the name Little Abe Lincoln thinks his father is the 16th president.
And it’s not the only time in this collection that McBride, author of the 2013 National Book Award-winning, abolitionist-era novel “The Good Lord Bird,” sets his tales in the time of slavery — or focuses on Lincoln.
In “The Fish Man Angel,” another story with a childlike sense of wonder, McBride takes fantastical liberties with the origin story of a famous line from Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.”
The opening story in this collection explores vintage-toy seller Leo Banskoff’s chance discovery of the long-lost, one-of-a-kind Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set, from which the story gets its title. Banskoff traces the set, which was commissioned by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee for his son Graham, who died before he ever got to play with it, to a black preacher in Queens, New York.
The train isn’t just rare and valuable. It has a fascinating back story revolving around its journey from South to North in the clutches of a runaway slave who escaped to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
The toy seller, seeing dollar signs in his eyes, sets out to buy the set from the preacher, only to make an even more bizarre discovery about its pious current owner.
McBride lets his sense of whimsy run wild in this collection.
The closing entry, “Mr. P and the Wind,” about an enchanted zoo where the animals can communicate with each other through their thoughts and read the mouths of humans, who they call “Smellies,” is a loopy and macabre bedtime story for kids at heart.
McBride is at his best in this off-kilter mode. Last year’s nonfiction offering, “Kill ‘Em and Leave,” saw McBride recounting his investigation into the life and times of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, with similar gusto and flare.
He just goes for it, and the results once again are funny, strange and touching.