In his first novel, Train Whistle Guitar, Albert Murray wrote of a place called Gasoline Point, Alabama, where all night and day trains rumbled through on the way north. The moaning wail of the whistles sang of families leaving the South for better prospects, of brothers and sisters parting ways and mothers saying goodbye. It sang of the sad fact that to get on in the world, men and women of ambition had to leave places like Gasoline Point for cities a long train ride from home.
In Rails Beneath My Back, 37-year-old Jeffrey Renard Allen revisits those rails between home and the wide world with a locomotive of a first novel. Much of Allen's book takes place in the somnolent sway of el trains, cross-country sleepers, and the intra-city commuter lines that bisect much of suburban America. "We martyr to motion," Allen writes. And so do the men he writes about, who leave their wives and one another to go to war, reunite, and then head off again for good, hot times in far-off cities. Motion is within them, passed down in the family blood, beckoning them "like a steel mother commanding the child inside after a day of play--like a magnet."
Rails Beneath My Back is ostensibly about the domestic fallout of all this motion, which begins with an ancient family slight and runs all the way down to the youngest offspring. The marriage of brothers Lucifer and John to sisters Gracie and Sheila is the novel's roundhouse, out of which shoot the lives of a dozen-plus characters. These two couples live together in an amalgam of Chicago and New York during the middle part of the 20th Century. Dipping in and out of the present, Allen reveals a bevy of family betrayals and secrets.
The dark and sacred core of this novel is a mother's abandonment of her daughters. As the novel opens, Jesus, who is Gracie and John's son, leaves the family perch. He lands in a rough neighborhood called Red Hook, brooding over his grandmother's ancient offense against her kin: "Jesus was convinced her exodus...had ripped open his life, for an eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow." In "Seasonal Travel," the book's opening section, Jesus is given the chance to break free from the poisoned roots of his family tree when a legendary street thug asks him to knock off a family member. The book then tacks backward to reveal the past Jesus is rebelling against.
As Allen limns the two families' pasts, it becomes clear that John and Lucifer's divergent pathways--"One is ignoble and the other noble. One ignoble and the other righteous"--are reflected in cousins Jesus and Hatch. The two brothers can't exist without one another. When one brother (John) was drafted into the war, the other (Lucifer) boarded the train to base camp, too. Thus, when Hatch hears of Jesus's potential death mission, he hops a train into the projects to find him. In the end, Jesus must decide whether he will sacrifice all this past for free motion.
As with Faulkner, and Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, Allen's prose style is thick, viscous, its time-hopping cast of characters reflecting the way family history stalks our shadows. Allen returns again and again to images of rails, of rotting teeth, of all things red, and spins them into a rich tapestry that he drapes over his cast, sometimes smothering them in the process. It's difficult to read more than ten pages of this book in a sitting--any more and its raw knowledge becomes overwhelming, its language impenetrable. As with the dialogue of his cast, rendered here in ruthless exactitude, Allen's vision of family history is not for the weary of heart.
Although following Allen's leaps into remembrance--and back--requires a prodigious attention span, the author's story makes the effort pay off tenfold. Rails Under My Back is a courageous feat of storytelling, one that generously gives each of its characters a tortured epic full of ancient history and freshly pricked blood. Every far-flung person is connected to the next like the matrix of rails that link America's cities. In his 1999 collection of poems Harbors & Spirits, Allen wrote of an urge "to draw the lines tight/gather all the stories/lead them/through terrible country/and weave them into a single voice." In this intricate novel, Allen has achieved just that with breathtaking results.