The biggest hurdle to overcome in Jeffery Renard Allen’s collection “Fat Time” is the provocation of its opening pages. The collection’s opener, “Testimonial (Support in Belief/Verified By Fact)” gives an account of a man who attempts to save his child from a culling of the innocent by stuffing him up a cow’s anus. Allen then leads us into “Fall,” a tale of a violent Nat Turner-style revolt of albinos against an oppressive Black majority. In context, both stories have literary merits above what a brief synopsis would suggest, mostly due to Allen’s lyrical prose, but you can almost feel Allen trying to intentionally clear the room by starting at his most incendiary, before turning down the heat for those still left.
Following the early incitements, Allen settles into softer depictions of Black life. Allen’s native Chicago features, even if anonymously at times. In “Four Girls” we are told a mayor of an unnamed city intends to move into the ghetto until a crimewave stops, invoking shades of Jane Byrne. A later story makes the Chicago setting more explicit, featuring allusions to both the South Side and Grant Park. While Allen is comfortable in mundane portrayals of urban life, he often shifts gear to mythical subjects and content. Some of the subjects of this collection include Miles Davis, heavyweight Jack Johnson and Jimi Hendrix, the last of whom is companioned by an immortal Francis Bacon. Other magical content includes a group of moonfolk in negotiations with the Nation of Islam and an Italian Villa transplanted to Illinois brick-by-brick by the order of Abraham Lincoln and occupied by the Black spiritualist movement preaching against fornication.
While “Fat Time” isn’t a novel in stories, it is a tightly structured collection, divided into two sections: the first, titled “Water Brought Us,” named after a 2007 essay of the same, and the second, “Water Will Carry Us Back.” Between the two halves of the collection there is a mirroring in terms of both content and theme. The account of Miles Davis’ twilight years in “Pinocchio” reflects the depiction of Hendrix’s final hours in “Heads.” The presence of Muhammad Ali in “Orbits,” referred to as “the Champ” and caught in preparation for his disastrous fight with Larry Holmes despite an otherwise futuristic setting, contrasts with Johnson’s presence in the title story, seen preparing for his historic heavyweight championship bout. The title itself is also a connection to the Davis piece, “Fat Time” being the name of a Davis track.
Between sketches of these assorted great and deeply flawed men and his more mundane look at Black life, including a down-low queer experience in “Big Ugly Baby,” Allen is deeply interested in how Black masculinity can assert itself against oppressive headwinds, whether in familiar racism or novel homophobia. Even the tension of “Testimony” is one of how a father and son can cope following the ultimate degradation. Yet it’s Allen’s spiritual streak that shines most brightly. While Allen is skeptical of the divinely wrought violence of “Fall” or the divisions a religious hierarchy fosters between the father and daughter of “Orbits,” he is sure to make the most transcendent moment of the collection an explicitly spiritual one. We do not expect Xavier to find a holy moment in his trip to the Villa in “Fornication Camp,” and neither does Xavier, but when Xavier allows the experience to take him, he is transformed all the same. The reader might not be transformed with him, but Allen’s attention to craft could get us close.
“Fat Time And Other Stories”
By Jeffery Renard Allen
Graywolf Press, 288 pages, $16