by James McBride
Published 2017 by Riverhead Books
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0735216693
By Noah Sanders
In the Author’s Note for James McBride’s new collection of short stories, Five-Carat Soul, the author writes of the inspiration for the quintet of chapters that makes up the book’s closing story, “Mr. P & The Wind.” He writes of taking his nephews to a zoo in a “major American” city, and how the story was crafted with his “horrified” family in mind. After reading “Mr. P & The Wind”—and any number of the other stories in the book—one might assume that it was not only inspired by his nephews, but written with their fledgling age group in mind. There’s a simplistic blandness to “Mr. P & The Wind”; its fable-like tale of “thought speaking” zoo animals toes the line of superficial allegory (the zoo is like prison, the animals like prisoners) but never seems to want to draw any conclusions from said allegory. This is a problem that spans the entirety of the book. McBride—a National Book Award winning author—plays in the arena of weighty ideas, but for the most part the short stories contained within span a grim spectrum: the ideas spread too thin with too little focus, or beat into the reader’s brain with the subtlety of a jackhammer.
There is some surprise in reading a piece of Mr. McBride’s work—the author is a beloved literary staple and an award-winning one at that—and finding it so underwhelming. To be frank though: this is an underwhelming collection. It feels slapped together, an anthology of short pieces as written by an author uncomfortable in the medium, over an entire lifetime of writing. Five-Carat Soul doesn’t feel like a collection crafted to show off a writer’s particular skill, rather, it just seems to be the shorter work he had collecting dust in various cabinets, finally brought to light.
“The Fish Man Angel”—a story that could’ve been titled “How Mr. Lincoln Wrote The Emancipation Proclamation”—quite literally tells the story of a grieving Lincoln, hiding in a stable while his coachman Simmie, tells a story to his confused son. While Lincoln cowers, Simmie speaks of his wife and the “fish man angel” that helped her to get pregnant and how his final words to her, “here … thenceforward … forever-more … free” inspired the President to compose his most famous speech, just a few weeks later. Shrinking down the inspiration for the most famous of all of the most famous president’s speeches to a single moment of clarity isn’t outright a bad idea, but McBride draws such a linear connection between a sad Lincoln, a mean stablemaster and a cheery, if not bumbling, coachman, there’s a feeling that more is coming, that a greater idea will be touched upon. It never happens. It isn’t fair to judge an author on the expectations of its reader, but time and time again in Five-Carat Soul, the stories gleam with the dewy sheen of lofty ideas, but never dig deep enough to make them matter. Instead McBride seems content with writing folksy, under-developed yarns that aren’t hard to read, but come off as decently written throwaways.
“The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” starts off brilliantly—a lonely toy collector finds the train set of his dreams—but after drawing the reader in, lays down an elementary thematic structure (we’re all different from who we purport ourselves to be) and then neatly ties the disparate narrative elements together. Nearly every piece feels this way. “The Moaning Bench” tells the tale of four people condemned to hell and the boxer who fights for their freedom. “The Christmas Dance” is a straightforward story about a promise made in war that McBride struggles to add tension and mystery to. There just isn’t much layering to any of the ideas inherent to this collection. They are exactly what they are on the page, and sadly, it just isn’t enough.
It’s not all bad. The four-part “The Five Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band” recounts the lives of four boys in a destitute neighborhood called The Bottoms. Mr. McBride nails the tone and the interactions of pubescent boys, adding a gritty warmth to the down-and-out world he creates. Here, the folksy tone of McBride’s writing succeeds—the nostalgia layered over his strong points about race, class and poverty adding a needed roundness to the work the rest of the collection lacks.
Mr. McBride is, from his critical reception and the awards he’s amassed, a talented novelist. A writer able to not only write a gripping piece of fiction, but to imbue it with a deeper, oft times darker subtext. Here though, in the realm of short stories—fickle beasts that they are—he feels out of his element, stripped of his humor and charm, struggling to invest his work with the wise, nostalgic elegance he’s so well known for.