Memory haunts the characters of Jeffery Renard Allen’s second novel, Song of the Shank. Initially set in the year 1866, in the near-immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the collective consciousness of the characters often seems to reside in events predating that four-year bloodbath, and the novel spends much of its time exploring the rapidly shifting relationships of blacks and whites after the dissolution of slavery in the South.

Allen was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, and his two previous works of fiction—a novel, Rails Under My Back (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), and a collection of short stories, Holding Pattern (2008)—were heavily influenced by his experiences here. “I wanted to write about subjects that people did not want to talk about,” Allen said in an interview in 2005. “I do think that it’s a writer’s job to put the dirty stuff in peoples’ faces to make sure they see it.” With Song of the Shank, Allen uncovers from the past a figure whom history has wanted to forget and whom he forces us to see.

That figure is Thomas Greene Wiggins, a famous, black piano-playing savant known simply as “Blind Tom,” unable to clothe or feed himself (other than by ardently and endlessly requesting lait), but capable of memorizing and playing, immaculately, over 5,000 pieces of music. His quiet magnetic pull seems less related to his gnomic pronouncements—at one point, he tells a hapless interviewer, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and still consider myself king of infinite space”—than his mercurial ability to pound at the piano with the “spasmodic movements of the hands.” He presents a problem, however, for various groups of people.

The Bethune women of Hundred Gates, the farm where Tom was born, soon form an attachment to him, and the daughters begin distributing playbills to local farms, proclaiming, in tones that foreshadow the later hyperbolizing of Blind Tom’s shows: “His mouth speaketh great swelling words. His hands bringeth forth great swelling sounds.” Allen’s writing is lilting and lyrical, with concise metaphors, and some of his strongest sentences come in this section, when he relates small snippets from Tom’s point of view of his childhood. One encounter in particular, where Tom drinks milk directly from a cow, could be clumsy in the wrong hands, but Allen makes it strangely beautiful with the simple desires Tom feels: “He gently probes her udders—this is a word he does not know—with his fingers. Cows and trees have branches…He pulls and squeezes and sucks. In a low voice the cow encourages him. More.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bethune muses on the possibility that he is simply a master of mimesis, incapable of producing anything truly original because of the constraints of his birth race—a view obviously shared by the many mocking, racist attendees at his early concerts, who view Tom as a genetic aberration to be treated dismissively. At this point, Allen could afford to vary his language to suit his different characters—whether a youngish white widow or an older black freedman, they all sound vaguely similar, and it works to the book’s detriment, removing the potential for more varied, unique voices.

Later, after the death of Mrs. Bethune, Tom is sold to Perry Oliver, who publicizes and celebrates his show across the United States and, eventually, the world. The book actually contains images of several of the posters from the historical Blind Tom’s original shows. Their bold, enthusiastic lettering seems more like quaint sensationalism than shrewd showmanship. Their presence—along with various quoted newspaper accounts of his performances—is a deft reminder of Tom’s historical existence (he died in 1908).

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, a Civil War unceremoniously ignites, flares up, and fizzles out; it is not Allen’s focus. The plot proceeds apace in a dizzying amalgamation of time periods and characters, and Tom is eventually passed back to the Bethunes and taken to New York, where he is met on the stoop one morning by a mysterious black stranger, Tabbs Gross, who explains that he has come to return Tom to his mother. This brings Tom to the fictional island of Edgemere, lying to the east of New York City in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Black families, brutally expelled from their homes during Civil War draft riots, have taken refuge on the island. Soldiers and freedmen travel home join them there, or are consigned to Central Park; both places are desolate, and Allen invokes as description a couplet echoing Eliot (echoing Dante): “I would never have believed / That Death could have undone so many.” Death, here, is not only the war, but also slavery and its vestiges. Allen is constantly prodding, reminding us of the underlying historical background to the novel: “Slavery is a puncture—have you ever picked cotton?—the hole (hold) that can never close.”

Allen isn’t interested in exploring the well-trodden ground of the horrors of slavery, but rather the aftermath, articulating how blacks  attempted to heal its first lingering, festering wounds. In his description of these autonomous black societies—their religious, militant leadership, their harsh poverty—Allen illustrates the complexities of newly discovered independence, and lays to rest the idea that, even in the North, the end of slavery was the start of a utopia. Allen’s refusal to truly shift between voices again works to his detriment here, burdening sections that could be more telling, and his characters are sometimes hard to keep track of. Yet the novel is incisive in showing the impossibility, especially in a time and place like this, of escaping history.

Well, almost impossible—when Tom arrives at Edgemere, the island where his mother lives, newly burgeoning black leaders idealize him, and attempt to turn him into an instrument for their own highly political ends. As Wire, a powerful black preacher, tells his congregation, “The time has come for us to forget and cast behind us our hero worship and adoration of other races, and to start out immediately to create and emulate heroes of our own.” But Tom, more iconoclast than icon, manages something of an escape when he simply refuses to play the piano at Wire’s church meeting, because of how much he pines after Eliza Bethune, his white caretaker. Hoping to spark resistance, the militant church leaders come to discover that Tom is not as easily manipulated as they had initially thought, and cannot simply be touted as a figurehead of his race.

Perhaps this is due to his impenetrability—he shows physical tenderness only towards Eliza, and shuns his own mother. The curiously inexplicable nature of his actions allows characters such as Eliza, Tabbs, and Seven (Perry Oliver’s curiously named assistant) to identify themselves with him in whatever manner they want. Seven, for example, builds up such affection for Tom—despite never receiving any in return—that giving Tom back to the Bethunes leaves him churning with grief, bitterly telling himself, “Never forgive. Never forget.”

The novel, ostensibly about Tom, often has nothing to do with him. Instead, characters like Seven that revolve around Tom are explained through his association, and the genuine care and detail that Allen lavishes on the more compelling ones, the ways he carefully exposes and dissects them, is the best part of the book. In the end, it may be most astute of Seven to remark, paradoxically: “Blind Tom is a name he can no longer claim, a name that perhaps no one can claim or that everyone can claim.”

Jeffrey Renard Allen, Song of the Shank. Graywolf Press. 608 pages.

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