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Authors: Jeffery Renard Allen

Rails Under My Back

BOOK: Rails Under My Back
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Praise for

“A tour de force.”

Chicago Tribune

“Powerful stuff.”


“Jeffery Renard Allen’s intricate and involving first novel evokes the works of Joyce and Faulkner, and, as its title suggests, it’s a book very much concerned with travel, both metaphorical and actual.
Rails Under My Back
shuttles between present and past—sometimes seamlessly, sometimes violently—as it weaves together the preoccupations of its characters…. The story Allen keeps us busy assembling is no less than that of the varieties of African-American experience over much of the past century…. Besides Joyce and Faulkner, other 20th-century novelists whose work Allen’s calls to mind are Dos Passos, Ellison and Henry Roth—an indication of the remarkable literary company in which this novel may be seen to move.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Allen crashes onto the terrain like an incendiary device, full of an angry, modern commitment to literature in the highest sense, a literature informed by history, by longing, by spirituality. If there is justice in the literary world, this book will make a large mark on the first decade of a new century in American letters.”


“Big in vision, scope, technique and most importantly, artistic and intellectual achievement…. A superior writer, and a musical one to boot, equal parts composer, improviser and conductor, a literary version of jazzman Charlie Mingus…. If Allen never writes an other book the world won’t care. For with
Rails Under My Back
he has written one for the ages.”

Star Tribune

“A version of the African American
Gravity’s Rainbow
in the free associative style of

Los Angeles Times

“Jeffery Renard Allen can make words sing, sag, and somersault simultaneously. What he offers in the debut novel
Rails Under My Back
are verisimilitudinous slices of the African-American experience…. The breadth, depth, and virtuosity of this novel are awesome.
Rails Under My Back
will put Allen in the company of writers such as James Joyce, August Wilson, and Ralph Ellison.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The charged metaphor of the railroad serves as the spine of this vigorous and imaginative debut…. Allen’s multilayered exploration of the themes of abandonment, survival, love, emotional irresponsibility and redemption is original, but his dense, challenging fictional style, intermingling myth, cultural folklore and vernacular language, demands the reader’s unflagging attention. For those who stay the course, however, the wondrous journey is rewarding.”

Publishers Weekly

“An exciting and rewarding successor to the legacy of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Allen worked eight years on this novel, and the result is a very impressive creation: the work of an unusually gifted, disciplined, and more than promising writer.”


“A literary tour de force—a raw, powerful, and often poetic evocation of the modern, urban African American experience and the themes of family and abandonment.”

Library Journal

Rails Under My Back



Song of the Shank

Holding Pattern

Rails Under My Back


Harbors and Spirits

Stellar Places

A Novel


Copyright © 2000 by Jeffery Renard Allen

First published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2000

Introduction © 2015 by Charles Johnson

This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota.

Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation,, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.

Published by Graywolf Press

250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600

Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America

ISBN 978-1-55597-723-8

ISBN 978-1-55597-912-6

2  4  6  8  9  7  5  3  1

First Graywolf Printing, 2015

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015939977

Cover design: Kimberly Glyder Design

To the women who made me

Hit me in the eye

Maybe then maybe then

I’ll be better



by Charles Johnson

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four


The ear trieth words as the mouth tasted meat. Cause the whole language resembled the body of a trained athlete where every muscle, every sinew, is developed into full play.

Train, carry me. Train, bring me back.

Jeffery Renard Allen’s
Rails Under My Back
is a remarkable book, and what the author said of his second novel,
Song of the Shank,
in a 2014 interview could easily apply to this debut work of fiction:

The first thing I would want any reader to say about this novel is that “Jeff Allen gave everything he had when he wrote this book, every bit of himself, on every page, head and heart” because that is true. I really tried hard to get it right. Art may be the only form of perfection available to humans, and creating a work of art might be the only thing in life that we have full control over. So we might ask, How is great measured? Craft is certainly one thing. I also would like to think that certain works of art transform the artist.

As a writer of novels since 1974, and a teacher of the theory and practice of literary fiction for more than three decades, I am convinced that Jeff Allen has indeed given exhaustively of himself in the often-astonishing performance of this epic work.

Divided into fifty-five chapters organized in four sections,
is ostensibly a story about the lives of two black families. The “ground situation,” as John Barth might describe it, or premise, is the marriage of two brothers, Lucifer and John Jones, to two sisters, Sheila and Gracie McShan. Also portrayed are the lives of their children—Jesus, Porsha, and Hatch. These relationships form the basis for a family saga of multiple plots that twist and turn, geographically traverse Chicago, the South, and California, and explore questions of betrayal, abandonment, patricide, and the possibility of redemption, with a biblical interpretation adding a sacerdotal dimension to the story. By naming two of his characters Jesus and Lucifer, Allen invites the reader to consider them and their actions in terms of their archetypal namesakes, especially when, after a basketball game in the first section, “Seasonal Travel,” the character Freeze challenges Jesus by telling him that the man who is his father (supposedly) “stole a bird from me,” then adds that Jesus “know what I need you to do.”

Memorable works of fiction often have what I call a “magnet character.” This is the performer in the dramatis personae who sets things in motion, stirs things up, and draws our attention (like a magnet) whenever he or she steps onto the stage of the story. For example, in
that person is, obviously, Ahab. In my novel
it is, alternately, Chaym Smith and Martin Luther King Jr. And in
the magnet character is seventeen-year-old Jesus, an alienated and nihilistic young man—who commingles traits of both satanic and savior figures—dressed in red with hair that resembles his uncle Lucifer’s “red widow’s peak, a blade so sharp it would surely wound.”

As many reviewers have observed, the story in
is a nonlinear, mosaic-like puzzle that Allen wants his readers to assemble. In fact, in an email to Pamela R. Fletcher, who would publish a useful examination of this novel titled “Postmodern Literary Madness: A Study of Style and Technique in Jeffery Renard Allen’s
Rails Under My Back
” (
International Journal of Humanities and Social Science,
June 2011), he wrote, “I wanted the book to move in many directions at once, backwards and forwards in time, sideways and up and down. This means that the various themes would get played out across narratives and through various characters, through parallel and counterpoint, riffs and set pieces.” He also explained to Fletcher how “the primary mysteries of the novel are never truly resolved but remain at the novel’s end.”

BOOK: Rails Under My Back
12.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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