Book Review: ‘Fat Time and Other Stories,’ by Jeffery Renard Allen

FAT TIME AND OTHER STORIES, by Jeffery Renard Allen

Ralph Ellison brought readers to underground places and dared them to listen for lower frequencies to find a frank and fearsome accounting of Black experience. In the seven decades since the publication of “Invisible Man,” writers ranging from Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones to Jesmyn Ward and Colson Whitehead have chosen storytelling modes featuring postmodernism, magic realism, and both lyric and gritty realism to explore and ennoble the ordinary and extraordinary lives of Black people past and present.

And then there’s Jeffery Renard Allen, whose writings seem to reach us from the darker side of the moon.

The Chicago-born poet, novelist, short-story writer and sometime professor of creative writing has developed a small, strange, acclaimed body of work over the past quarter-century, featuring two novels, two collections of poetry marked by jazz-solo plays with language and a book of short stories. Now he’s adding a new story collection to that catalog: “Fat Time and Other Stories.” In Allen’s fashioning, Black experience is never subject to conventional parameters of time and space, and his magic realism, instead of being performatively exuberant or purposefully provocative, is plainly unsettling and disturbing.

The first story in “Fat Time,” “Testimonial (Supported in Belief/Verified in Fact),” begins with people being hunted by a lynch mob. The narrator saves his young son by hiding him in a cow’s anus. The story ends with this same man, now old, meeting his son again, manure-covered and fully grown. The son’s apparent survival — Is he a ghost? Did he really survive? — is no cause for joy: “What would the others make of his return? Would they be jealous? They whose sons had not escaped the coffined clay? Would I need to hide my son again?” At story’s end, the son gives his father a hard consolation by confirming he’s actually dead, and so together, father and spectral son “sat the silence of anxious vigil.”

Uncanny disquiet governs the stories in this collection. Allen is drawn to situations where poverty and violence, and unstable senses of self and family and friendship, pressure already-jagged lines of connection, whether between mother and daughter, in “Circle” and “Four Girls,” or between two young Chicago men who become fitful, intense lovers, in “Big Ugly Baby.”

The collection also offers confidently eccentric takes on historical figures from the worlds of music and sports, not merely to humanize the people behind the iconic profiles — that’s too conventional a move for Allen — but instead to make them at once newly recognizable and newly strange.

In “Pinocchio,” Miles Davis loathes his adoring white audiences and is annoyed by a grandnephew who wants to join his band, but getting a new hip made “with metal from a newly discovered planet” is just fine. In “Heads,” Jimi Hendrix, who has appeared elsewhere in Allen’s fiction, spends late nights with the painter Francis Bacon, the two talking about art-making and life while Jimi occasionally strums his guitar. In the collection’s title story, Allen sends the boxer Jack Johnson to Australia for a high-profile fight, where his celebrity and Blackness lead to singular experiences at racialized extremes of local life. Allen also creates a Muhammad Ali who is text buddies with a teenage girl from the moon; in “Orbits,” her family helps Ali prepare for his 1980 fight with Larry Holmes while the Champ helps her with birthday party dilemmas.

On description alone, you might think this is merely weird and wise comedy, but I think Allen has more in common with Donald Glover than George Saunders. Like the final season of Glover’s “Atlanta,” “Fat Time and Other Stories” makes no pretense of wanting to entertain, or, really, of caring much what its audience will make of the strange turns it’s pursuing, or that not all of these turns necessarily work. These are difficult, inventive stories that, at their best, occupy a range of frequencies and otherworldly places with — to borrow Allen’s brilliant three-word description of Jimi Hendrix’s way with music — a “fierce itching dazzle.”

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto. His latest book is “Dante’s Indiana.”

FAT TIME AND OTHER STORIES | By Jeffery Renard Allen | 268 pp. | Graywolf Press | Paperback, $16

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