Kenan’s short stories explore a return to faith, home

Book review

Small towns are strange. Cities may put up with more oddity, and indeed freaks from rural towns often escape to big cities precisely because their weirdness is more tolerated there. But, if urban spaces provide safe haven for weirdness, it’s tiny, isolated communities that breed it.

Artists as varied as William Faulkner, Gilbert Hernandez and David Lynch have always known this; their fictional rural spaces bloom and fester with dreamscapes, night visions and ghosts. Randall Kenan knows it, too. Over three decades, he’s built up the history and culture of Tims Creek, North Carolina, a coastal enclave of African Americans whose lives seem to seep from regularity to surrealism without even a wink to the reader.

But it’s been a while since we’ve heard from his town’s inhabitants. “If I Had Two Wings,” Kenan’s new collection of short stories, feel like a series of letters from an old friend who still lives there, letting us in on what’s new, who’s died, who’s shacking up with whom, and who renovated their old house in the tackiest manner possible.

Even when the stories travel distances, they’re never emotionally far from Tims Creek. The first story, “When We All Get to Heaven,” features a Kenan regular, Ed Phelps, on a jaunt to Manhattan for a work trip of sorts, in which he eats a magnificent sandwich at the Carnegie Deli (me too, Ed) and accidentally meanders into Billy Idol’s orbit for a night. Ed has a blast in the rock star’s universe, but he longs to be back in Tims Creek, and he spends his New York day comparing the metropolis to his coastal abode.

Coming home to Tims Creek is a central theme of the book. Cicero Cross returns there for a funeral in “I Thought I Heard the Shuffle of Angels’ Feet.” A thinly veiled Kenan goes back for good in “Resurrection Hardware.” In “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water,” Mrs. Streeter comes back from a Caribbean vacation to find her town devastated by a hurricane.

Thematically, there’s also a coming home to, and reconciling with, a sense of faith. It’s not accidental that almost all of the stories feature titles drawn from either the Bible or gospel music.

But coming home is hard for some, and “If I Had Two Wings” understands precisely and complexly why some folks had to leave in the first place. In one story, a man asks his new lover, also a man, “Do you miss North Carolina?” The response is, “Only when I’m there.” The coastal Black South still doesn’t quite feel like home to the queer men and women who left it, who populate Kenan’s oeuvre. They’re uneasy whenever they visit or linger, unsure if Tims Creek can or even wants to welcome them on their own terms.

Of course, it’s not any easier for those who never left it. In “Now Why Come That Is?,” the only story featuring a white protagonist, Percy Terrell gets haunted by a hog who symbolizes the man’s multitude of sins — racism and avarice being the key ones. In “The Acts of Velmajean Swearington Hoyt,” maybe the best story in the book, the title character discovers she can perform miracles just like Jesus and, similarly, it causes her no end of trouble.

Kenan troubles the South by unsettling blackness and rustic life in equal measures. Sometimes, the restlessness is too unfocused, with stories often rendered too fragmented, overstuffed, with too many tangents that don’t cohere, jumping from one locale to the next without tethering things in a worthwhile narrative.

He is at his best when he’s evoking the senses around food — taste, smell, touch — with the redolent “The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks” being a superb example. Here, Kenan waxes so magnificently about biscuits and blueberry jam that it makes the story shine and feel like a modern-day myth. In “Mamiwata,” the one story set centuries in the past, river fishing and camp cooking drive the story. “Resurrection Hardware,” a story that pulls us in too many directions at once, coheres (finally) around a gloriously described gourmet meal cooked by the protagonist.

Credit: Miriam Berkley

Credit: Miriam Berkley

Meals and appetites both make Kenan focus and allow him room for sensual, erotic tangents full of longing. When Kenan’s characters cook and eat, we discover what they really feel and care about.

Too often, though, he retreats to vague diction when trying to grapple with larger issues. He makes grandiose statements about a character or her environment but doesn’t exactly make them come alive with action or dialogue. In some stories, instead of a revealing anecdote or crucial detail, Kenan gives us grocery lists of character attributes and interests, so that we have lots of individual details but they don’t necessarily add up to lived-in characters.

It’s as if he’s trying to push grandiosity onto his tales, instead of letting them resonate naturally. In “Resurrection Hardware,” a story guilty of these tendencies, Kenan seems self-aware of this problem: “Remembering a short story by John Updike about a 50-year high school reunion: They are never what we build them up to be. We expect some grand revelation. Revelations work on their own time, not ours.”

That being said, enough of these sensuous, chatty stories work on their own sweet time, with lessons sly and less than obvious. “If I Had Two Wings” feels like coming home to a much-missed author, even if only to take in how much home has changed while we were gone.

FICTION

‘If I Had Two Wings: Stories’

by Randall Kenan

W.W. Norton & Company

224 pages, $25.95