Rails Under My Back: A Novel

Book Reviews

Rails Under My Back: A Novel

by Jeffery Renard Allen

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 563 pp., $26

Rails Under My Back tells the stories of two African-American families bound to one another by the fateful marriages of two brothers to two sisters. In mid-20th-century Chicago, Lucifer and John Jones decide to marry Sheila and Grace McShan. Their children will make sure that nothing remains the same. The family saga that unfolds shows that these families are linked also by generations of similar experiences in Southern towns and Northern cities, an American history of black families moving from town to town according to where the train would take them. Deathrow, a minor character and a love object for beautiful Porsha, daughter of Lucifer and Sheila, says, "It ain't where you come from. It's where you're going." He is only partly correct. For the families in Rails, where they come from -- the starts and stops of familial love, the gaps in the family tree, the stories told (half-truths/total lies) -- are as important as the future.

The fate of the Jones families is rooted in biblical allegory. The women are zealously religious. Grace carries her Bible everywhere and spouts verses to protect herself against visions. Sheila, too, needs religion, and she shares this with Porsha, the beautiful temptress daughter. Porsha seeks solace in a revival at the New Cotton Rivers Baptist Church: "Cause your soul-oh-oul dangles over the licking fires of hell, huh!" The men do not go to church. They seek comfort in drink, drugs, talk, music -- wordly things. The names are symbolic: Lucifer, John, Jesus, Hatch (newly born). The projects, where Deathrow lives and where Jesus, adrift and cast off from the family, finds his new purpose, are nicknamed Red Hook, a circle of hell that is only reachable by a long journey on the train and a long walk from there: "Twelve buildings, each twenty-six stories high, a red path of brick thrusting skyward, poking the clouds, bleeding them."

Jesus is red in color, nicknamed "Red," and enamored of Red Hook, that rough world that he unleashes onto his family and the rest of the city; he feels chosen. For all of the characters, moral distinctions between good and evil are blurred and contradictory. For the Joneses, with these hypocrisies and selfish behaviors and naivete, apocalypse is near.

Critics have already named Jeffrey Renard Allen a successor to James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, the major male African-American writers of the 20th century. These comparisons are appropriate because Rails Under My Back focuses intently on the embattered black family in a hard world. Yet Allen definitely represents the next generation; this novel is not a cry for radical action, for change in the social conditions that have forged the difficult path that these characters have traveled. Allen is much more fatalistic. It is hard to pin blame on any one cause that motivates the characters to act the way they do. Similarly, it is hard to link one character's story and experience to another; transitions between chapters are not smooth. In the scheme of the novel, however, these loose ends become a part of it. Allen seems to say: We live, we die, we repeat, we fight, we are chosen because of who we are and what we will become.

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