Holding Pattern: Stories
By Jeffery Renard Allen
Graywolf Press, paperback
"Blunt snapped her umbrella open to ward off the sun. He moved under its shade and watched Blunt, her false teeth as bright as cell bars, dead person's hair concealing gray wire springs poking from her bald scalp," Jeffery Renard Allen writes in "Dog Tags," a story from Holding Pattern. "Not in use, the fake hair covered a white faceless squeaking Styrofoam head, like a bird perched in a tree, waiting to lift up its hairy wings and flap away."
In passages like this one, the New York-based New School professor and author approaches fiction writing with all the sensual immediacy of a Romantic poet and the daydreaming over-imagination of the late David Foster Wallace. Throughout Holding Pattern, Allen has much to say--often to a maddeningly indirect degree--about racism's strong roots, mysticism, and African-American mores generally, but the Uzi-like dispatch of stinging, lingering imagery is his chief weapon. His stories are really tales--with morals you've got to suss for yourself--but mostly, Pattern's rewards lie in its onslaughts of imagery.
Presented in phonetically precise Ebonics, the title piece pulls triple-duty as a street-hustling primer, a character study of an underworld bottom-feeder, and something out of The Uncanny X-Men. "Toilet Training" concerns a pair of brothers--one mentally impaired, one not--and the complicated dynamic of their relationship. "It Shall Be Again" casts away any and all traces of realism to spend a few troubling pages playing merry hell with racist barbs, monetary forms, and run-on non sequiturs. Here, Allen conjures a lethal rain of coins--"Knuckles, pennies punched through faces"--and cockily contemplates currency-as-flesh: "Yes, I'm gon be all money someday. Head flat as a dime. Diamond fingernails. Jeweled three-ton suit. Gold cane, fat like an elephant's dick."
There's a potency to these fictions that eats away at the mind for days afterward, that makes one marvel at their strangeness and re-live their vividness. On those occasions when Allen confines himself to more conventional narration--the excellent "Mississippi Story" and its deft parsing of past and present vestiges of racism in that state aside--Holding Pattern's intensity fades somewhat. "Same," the tale of a slickster who misrepresents himself as a war hero/novelist for fun, profit, and ass, is little more than a twist on the stock comeuppance form. And the twisted, ludicrous turn "Shimmy" takes can't compensate for the dull expository build-up that precedes it. If Allen had only run willy-nilly with his tilted-perspective prose, Pattern would be an undeniably great read instead of half of one.