Jeffery Renard Allen's Holding Pattern
The Stop Smiling Review
Thursday, September 25, 2008
By Jeffery Renard Allen
Reviewed by Fred Koschmann
The stories in Jeffery Renard Allen’s new collection, Holding Pattern, a followup to his acclaimed debut novel, Rails Under My Back, are self-contained units, proceeding in accordance with their own inimitable logic. Some establish captivating worlds haunted by the specters of poverty and delinquency, while others tailspin and end abruptly, without explanation or resolution. As with the world he describes, Renard Allen’s characters and plotlines frequently implode and fall apart. In “Bread and the Land,” the tension between two characters comes to a head only when they literally run into each other. In “Dog Tags,” the story ends with a deus ex machina in the form of a monkey. Holding Pattern is an amorphous series of experiments with form, voice, and allegory, that veer from excitingly inventive to frustratingly portentous. Renard Allen’s seriousness is Holding Pattern’s greatest asset and its greatest failing.
Renard Allen’s world is grounded in the gritty reality of urban hardship in Chicago. The characters’ blunt dialogue is dead-on, even while Renard Allen peppers it with aphorisms. Take for example this apartment-bloc encounter in the title story: “Juicy meet me inna hall with a kiss, all sexy and fly in this negligee, thin like a spiderweb. She be like, Hey, Pea, you sweet bitch. How you doin?” The protagonist has attitude for days, and he’s easy to root for. But when you consider that he’s meeting Juicy to pick up her two sons, dress them in drag and try to make a few dollars on the subway, using a carefully rehearsed routine, one starts to imagine what these characters are up against — the daily scramble for money and the concurrent desire to flee the material world. That reality constitutes the “holding patterns” that stifle and constrict their lives. Renard Allen conjures this world quite vividly, and it often leaves one wondering why the fantastical elements that so often augment these scenes are necessary.
The employment of magic realism appears to be Renard Allen’s way of imploring his characters (and readers) to keep their heads up; no matter how bleak the outlook, a way out can be found. When a character named Pea is detained (and humiliated) by two white cops on the subway, salvation looks more remote then ever. But it’s those same policemen who show Pea one of the most confounding things he’s ever seen — a black man who can fly. “The wings ain’t got no feathers,” he says. “They all dried up and brown and crusty, like some fried chicken wings.” It’s not the glorious moment you’d expect when discovering someone who can fly — and it turns out the man is being kept in a cell for no apparent reason — but still, Renard Allen seems to be saying, he can fly. For all the pain Renard Allen goes through in detailing the holding patterns that dominate the lives of his characters, the promise of flight seems like a cheap solution. It suggests that, with a flick of the wrist, the walls will somehow come crumbling down.
But in this world, there’s love in the lowly, and there’s humor. Characters are often big, ugly and enigmatic — eyes black like oil, butts said to “swing like hammocks.” In the story “Bread and the Land,” we look through the eyes of a boy named Hatch and see his grandmother as he does, a beast wearing a “feathery white mink hat and coat, red amphibian jumpsuit (leather? plastic?), and knee-length alligator boots.” She moves into the cramped apartment he shares with his mother, declaring her intention to buy them a new one eventually, but Hatch isn’t convinced. He thinks she’s broke and there to mooch off them. Yet when she gets out a guitar and starts strumming folk songs, steady as a train, his is disarmed, and he begins wondering for the first time what has made her who she is. When Allen’s characters appear monstrous, they terrify mostly because they are so recognizably human.
Renard Allen may have earned accolades far and wide for Rails Under My Back, but he has also published two collections of poetry. Both the poet and the novelist are at work in Holding Pattern. He shows the reserve of a novelist, allowing complex themes to emerge naturally, and also adroitly renders those vague, suspended moments generally found in poetry; at times, though, they can be detrimental to the story. (When the story reads like a poem, it’s hard to know what’s actually happening; when it reads like a novel, one feels short-changed when it ends 10 pages later.) Recognizing these tensions and watching Allen wrestle with them is itself entertainment of a high order.
Along with navigating this distinctive literary terrain, Renard Allen escorts the reader through some gnarly territory, from holding cells in underground subway stations to southern towns that haven’t outgrown their racist pasts. At times his characters seem to shoulder the entirety of the country’s history of injustice and oppression. “Black absorbs everything,” Allen explains. In “Mississippi Story,” a professor traveling through that state sees a black man demonstrating in a Confederate uniform. As news cameras crowd around him, the professor ponders the scene, wondering what he should feel. Another professor insists the demonstrator is a well-known activist, that whatever he’s up to, he knows what he’s doing. But the lone Confederate figure on the edge of town unsettles the narrator nonetheless. He wonders how the Mississippi of his childhood could seem to be bigger now, not smaller, as things tend to appear when revisited. On a long walk, he is overcome by thoughts of murder in the American south, and eventually the accretion of violent images causes him to collapse in the dirt. “Sweat spills,” he cries, “a river inside me.” (A passage from Rails Under Back describes this sort of resignation perfectly: “Funny how the shut eye could fill with dark water, a well, where shadows and shapes swam, and empty circles floated like life rafts.”)
Elsewhere, that history becomes nearly evanescent. In “Dog Tags,” a character named Hatch looks out the window of a train, just as a different character named Hatch looks out the frosty backseat window of a cab into the harsh Chicago winter in “Bread and the Land.” The characters are roughly the same age, but this one comes from a small-town farm, and his mind is occupied by fireflies and egg yolk (“the ghosts of unborn chickens”) rather than the nature of life on the streets. The worlds serve as loose complements, with the reader left to mind the space between the two and the forces that align them. Herein lies the greatest joy of this collection: witnessing the variety of Renard Allen’s worlds, and traversing the territory between them.