Hatch and Jesus Jones, sons of John and Lucifer who are married to Gracie and Sheila are cousins. They are related on both sides and decent family does not get any deeper than that. It is the lives, loves, hate and loss of this family that Jeffery Renard Allen chronicles in his ambitious tome “Rails Under My Back.”

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Harcourt Books

The story starts with the escape of the boy”s grandmother from her home, abandoning her children to follow a lover to New Mexico. This event sets the stage for a reenactment of this episode of abandonment in every generation of the family.

Husbands abandon wives, children leave home and lovers never return. Despite the apparent closeness and affection of the Jones family, its members still find it easy to up and leave whenever they feel the need.

Mr. Allen has written an ambitious book, one that attempts to capture a century of African-American family life. However, his reliance on confusing and obscure metaphors together with his somewhat wilted poetry all detract from this powerful story of a black family in 20th century America, a family that is both closer together and further apart than most.

The story itself is impressive the time scale is enormous even though there are few if any blatant chronological references, plus Allen fills the reader”s mind with chameleon-like settings that change at the drop of a hat.

The city, the country and the college we see all these places from an African-American perspective. This is a story with the African-American experience of the 20th century as its base. Major historical events serve as a backdrop to the lives in this tale: The Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King”s marches and speeches, soldiers dodging bullets in Vietnam. We see how the Jones family, and the other families that it is connected to, interpret and exist around these events.

Unfortunately, every time we get closer to Mr. Allen”s message, we are distracted by everything else he has thrown in the mix. While one is loath to criticize those who are courageous enough to get their work published, the reader cannot help but notice that in his attempt to ascribe to a certain level of literary sophistication, Mr. Allen has basically shot himself in the foot. He appears to have sacrificed clarity at the altar of self-important and pretentious prose and it shows.

It seems that in his writing, Mr. Allen sees himself as the inheritor of a great literary tradition, one embodied by the works of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.

However, neither Baldwin nor Morrison ever gave the reader the impression that they try too hard. This seems to be one of the clearer messages in Allen”s writing.

It is obvious that in his quest to be like his heroes, Mr. Allen has lost his own voice and as a result his writing comes across as contrived and inauthentic.

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