RAILS UNDER MY BACK by Jeffrey Renard Allen

Book Reviews
RAILS UNDER MY BACK by Jeffrey Renard Allen
Jan 10, 2000, 07:01

RAILS UNDER MY BACK by Jeffrey Renard Allen; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000

Rails Under My Back is a sprawling, ambitious debut novel by Jeffrey Renard Allen that follows the lives of the Griffith's and Simmons' families. Impressionistic and sometimes surreal, Allen seems to base his fictional city on the public housing projects of New York and Chicago, and from here the stories and characters move in many directions. Central to this saga are cousins Jesus and Hatch, who have grown up together and whose respective fathers John and Lucifer share more than just their Vietnam experiences and become embroiled in a mysterious situation in which they both leave town and their chagrined wives (and sisters) Gracie and Sheila. Allen punctuates his narrative with frequent use of interior flashbacks in which characters suddenly recover long ago memories, much like a smell or song can instantly evoke a memory. Death, anger, betrayal, violence, and intoxication all swirl together in the onrush of character and place. Pasts and futures are the barest frame for the ever present now and all the confusion inherent in man's struggle to live. A lot of these characters antagonize, and their motivation is often influenced more by chance than any rational idea. At times, this becomes difficult and I hoped for more plot development than character portrayal. Nevertheless, Allen's presentation of the African American experience is profound and complicated. His feel for the characters individual voices is convincing and sharp, and Allen's talent should gain him a larger readership.

-Wade Iverson

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