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Cover for Song of the Shank

Song of the Shank

A Novel

Jeffery Renard Allen


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Digital Audiobook (8/14/2014)


A contemporary American masterpiece about music, race, an unforgettable man, and an unreal America during the Civil War era

At the heart of this remarkable novel is Thomas Greene Wiggins, a nineteenth-century slave and improbable musical genius who performed under the name Blind Tom.
Song of the Shank opens in 1866 as Tom and his guardian, Eliza Bethune, struggle to adjust to their fashionable apartment in the city in the aftermath of riots that had driven them away a few years before. But soon a stranger arrives from the mysterious island of Edgemere—inhabited solely by African settlers and black refugees from the war and riots—who intends to reunite Tom with his now-liberated mother.
As the novel ranges from Tom's boyhood to the heights of his performing career, the inscrutable savant is buffeted by opportunistic teachers and crooked managers, crackpot healers and militant prophets. In his symphonic novel, Jeffery Renard Allen blends history and fantastical invention to bring to life a radical cipher, a man who profoundly changes all who encounter him.

Praise For Song of the Shank: A Novel

“[A] masterly new novel. . . . It sagely explores themes of religion, class, art and genius, and introduces elements of magic realism . . . resulting in the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.” —The New York Times Book Review (front cover)

“Allen's elaborate novel unfurls like a tapestry, its minutely detailed tableaux illustrating the vast, unhealed bruise of American racism.” —The Boston Globe

“Powerfully evokes the life of the 19th-century slave and enigmatic musical savant, Blind Tom.” —Vanity Fair

“Epic and brilliant. . . . [Allen's] unhurried and unconventional novel is a celebration of an utterly unique American artist.” —The Los Angeles Times

“Inventive, earthy, lyrical, demanding, rewarding. . . . There are echoes . . . in this potential Great American Novel of past masters Faulkner, Hemingway, Ellison, Melville, John Edgar Wideman, Ishmael Reed.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Beautiful. . . . [Allen's] style is at once dense and spare--his prose poetic and heavily evocative.” —Chicago Tribune

“An eerie fever dream of a historical novel. . . . [Allen] carries the resources of the poet and the psychic in his trick bag.” —Bookforum

“[An] explosive vanguard novel . . . a chilling orphic drama full of polyrhythmic shakers and shells. . . . A landmark of modern African-American literature. . . . Reading through this sagacious volume is like stumbling on a crooked monument covered in celestial carvings, something that aims for the stars and ends up reconfiguring constellations.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“If there's any justice, Allen's visionary work, as startlingly inventive as one of his subject's performances, should propel him to the front rank of American novelists.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“[A] delightful literary gem.” —Essence

“[A] sprawling, Faulknerian work of fiction.” —The Kansas City Star

“In the extraordinarily talented hands of Allen, Tom is a mysterious and compelling figure. . . . [A] tour de force. . . . A brilliant book, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner.” —Booklist, starred review

Graywolf Press, 9781555976804, 608pp.

Publication Date: June 17, 2014

About the Author

JEFFERY RENARD ALLEN is the author of the novel Rails Under My Back and two collections of poetry. Allen was born and raised in Chicago. He teaches creative writing at Queens College/CUNY, and his awards include a Whiting Award.