The Light in Black America: “Five-Carat Soul” by James McBride

“The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set” concerns a priceless toy train, pursued by a vintage toy seller and possessed by the poverty-stricken Reverend Spurgeon Hart. Dex playing guitar can’t keep him from being overshadowed by his mentally challenged brother handing out naked pictures of their mother. (A classic redbone is what she was.) And by summer’s end my own body is deep brown as an unwrapped chocolate bar. James McBride’s hit memoir debut, concerning life with his white and Jewish mother, only hinted that its author could down the road become a don of light-skinned lit. Smooth, bright, and just a few shades from appearing white, Butter works the organ at his Bottom church. Far from showy or dogmatic — the crookedly protesting black preacher is McBride’s idea of what a villain looks like — Butter does from story to story offer kernels of insight that bolster the action. Blub. When little “Abraham Lincoln” gets free from the orphanage, the inclination is to follow him any- and everywhere. ¤
Donnell Alexander   is a writer whose work has been featured in Time, The Nation, Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story,” and Economic Hardship Reporting Project. A gig is a gig. Joan Armatrading meets Terence Trent D’Arby. Yet the brokenness plays out in a fashion way more hopeful than the key McBride would be forced to play in, were his time frame a decade later. What’s more the humor here feels neutered without the robustness of The Bottom boys’ innocence, leaving two pugilists to pound and ponder. There’s not a double-negative or repetition out of place, and McBride never gets ahead of the beat. Goat. 2 Chainz kept recurring for me because a subtext of this collection is the author’s comfort zone. You get ready for gigs. ¤
The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band is a ’70s teen ensemble from an underside Pennsylvania neighborhood — The Bottom. SEPTEMBER 26, 2017
IN 1996, while I was still young enough to not yet feel ridiculous about such endeavors, I formed a living room garage band with an actress named Jennifer. Light Skindid never took. But she wasn’t paying me no mind. And magic is everything with this cat. It seems happenstance that The Color of Water hit in 1995, although one never knows for certain what happens up there in the ether. With McBride though? The voice of Butter is virtue in this place where social isolation causes childhood names to hang around inappropriately long. The world, we’re constantly reminded, ain’t gettin’ no lighter. The issue, for certain of us readers, gets all up in the faces. Mr. ¤
This is the part where I take a crack at explaining why throughout my reading of Five-Carat Soul I kept hearing the music of rap superstar 2 Chainz in my mind. She had opened the purse and pulled out her wallet and was fumbling around through it, and that’s the last I seen of her that day, for by the time she had flipped through the tiny papers and books and matches and little papers and got to the crumpled dollar bills in that wallet and was holding them up in her hand, I was out the door. And those waves from outside this collection’s Bottom Band section revel still deeper in America’s intensely racialized past, revel as though the author was built to revel. In his lesser pieces, physical fighting is a recurring subject. 2 Chainz himself is a jet-black, 6-6 purveyor of base revelations. Make no mistake: Every story in Five-Carat Soul brings a professional spit-polish, but with severely diminished input of children, much of what follows the eponymous section lacks magic. Crime and wrongdoing is all about Butter and his fellas. Woo runs the store beneath the rehearsal space and the aforementioned Blub buries the wrong roadkilt kitty to impress a girl. A lighter shade of black. Famously the one-time drug dealer works in the “trap music” genre, hip-hop straight out of dope houses. Of course this is the case with every writer. Your heartbeat. A vibe that was futuristic above all else. Around the band’s leader, Butter, McBride has clustered four elegiac narratives about said band. Warm belly smiles are what readers earn for coming along on the ride.) Possibly just as wonderful is “Father Abe,” in which a five-year-old orphan at the Civil War’s close is convinced his father is The Man Who Freed the Slaves. It don’t matter that gigs mostly never happen. Inopportunely, Jennifer and I were shitty musicians. We do not see or hear the band gig or even really practice. In the world where formulations like “for” and “gived” every youngster who’s granted a voice in Five-Carat Soul has their own distinct flavor of innocence. Butter don’t move too fast; he never plays more than a smidge in front of the beat. (As with every entry here, the author careens gracefully from episode to episode. Light Skindid was supposed to be about a sound. We called ourselves Light Skindid, based on the way certain of us black people pronounce “light skinned.” Jennifer, all big curls and freckles, wasn’t truly light skindid. Butter. Butter’s adorably betwixt-and-between nature is on emblematic display when Miss McIntire, the teacher he’s crushing on, asks Butter to run the story’s culminating errand, for “two whole dollars”:
She leaned over at her desk and opened a drawer to give me them double dollars, which gived me a chance to peek at some other doubles, them two brown bunnies paired up beneath her blouse, knocking about as she fumbled for her purse, that same pretty purse that sat on the seat of her car as she drove past The Triangle that day just before last summer. In “Goat,” a glorious tale about the mundane task of obtaining birth certificates, McBride has Butter falling in love for the first time — in counterbalance to his guitarist’s father issues. Following up fictionally on the 2013 National Book Award–winning novel The Good Lord Bird — a factual take on James Brown, which came out last year — McBride has let fly a dexterous and strategically doleful collection of short stories called Five-Carat Soul. The two events are probably not related, but McBride makes them feel as though they might be. McBride offers only artful allusions, making implicit that the music offers an escape from the pervasive ills of The Bottom. McBride can’t get away from these themes, nor should he, probably. I had snatched the thick envelope off the desk and was gone. Abraham Lincoln appears again. That’s not the point. The author was a pro saxophonist and composer before hitting it big in prose, and he plays his boy band like innocence instruments. Where Butter melts in, this cat never fails to call attention to himself. I ain’t worth two cents, is what I thought to myself, for this is the very thing they be hollering about in church. Still, it’s hard not to contemplate the ultimate value of such fine prose when most of its insight is in the rear view. A Joshua Redman solo. There’s boxing and there is war, and McBride seems unaware that the stuff, as presented, is a lot more interesting to him than it is to us. Not a single sentence feels hemmed in by the imagination limits of white editors. It is, too, the sound of aspiration. And, even though he’s not part of Five-Carat’s rhythm section, Butter takes charge of tempo as well as tone: Butter don’t curse. Which is why McBride’s writing seems uninterested in transcending Beautiful Nostalgia status: “Ain’t no Butter No More,” but the echo’s sure easy to groove on. I had a fit with myself, standing there watching her knockers. So many of the warm stories gently nuzzle perfection, and at its best, his pages function as an idyll of light-skinned lit, a category distinct from the once-dominant “wypipo shit.” Only when the author gets chintzy with the music does the writing cease to soar. The reverend don’t see no need for the millions the train might bring, and it’s hella fun watching the veteran merchant try to give him dough. The kid’s keyboard aesthetic swirls coherence about the madness, wrangling in reason via the most Christian of fashions. ’Tis the antithesis of light skindid. Blub ends up facing hard prison time by the end of his feature. Previously unthinkable, James McBride transforms into just another guy. Drummer Goat grows indelible through the pages not because of how he bangs the skins in time, but because of how he daily chases on foot behind his daddy, who’s on a bike. Coming across like the Second Coming of Mark Twain is at once a major achievement and a safe bet. Christianity is even higher up in the mix than anti-rap slams. Hear him describe, in “Blub,” a friendship shift with the story’s title character, “because we had a gig coming up”:
Of course, the gig was four months away, but a gig is a gig, so we was rehearsing hard and smoking a little weed and drinking a little Thunderbird wine, and rehearsing some more, ‘cause that’s what you do in a street band when you about to go to high school. For James McBride, the rapper would quite literally represent The Darkest Timeline. The music was there though, and with McBride the music is damn-near e’rything. And the boy’s underplayed Ebonics are impeccable, they leaven a potentially heavy darkness. “The Moaning Bench” has a battle that runs far, far too long, with blow after blow documented to the point of tedium. The lesser pieces are well-executed tricks that pay off with minimal flourish.