Black Saints and Sinners

Chia Messina
James McBride, New York City, 2012

The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band doesn’t play much music in James McBride’s first collection of short stories, Five-Carat Soul. One never gets a sense of what kind of outfit these young Negro boys—Butter, Goat, Beanie, Bunny, and Dex—might be. Are they closer to the Jackson 5 or the early Beatles or the musicians in the 2013 documentary A Band Called Death? McBride is more interested in the aspects of their lives that intervene in their careers: tales of children who never returned from Vietnam and others who might escape on track-and-field scholarships, fights over naked pictures of missing mothers, or double-murder trials like the one imposed on an innocent-seeming, portly child named Blub, who might have turned out okay if only he hadn’t suffered a broken heart too young.

The story of the band’s members and the community that raises them is narrated by Butter, about whom we don’t learn much. McBride, a celebrated musician as well as an author, steers away from the potentially fascinating collaborations among these young boys—the stuff that made up almost all of Colson Whitehead’s ravishing Sag Harbor (2009), for instance—and toward their fates as black children of the working poor in the era just before extreme wealth stratification, mass incarceration, and deindustrialization criminalized many of these people and took away their hope. In this uneven but rewarding collection, I could have used more of his insights into the intricate details of his characters’ lives and fewer generalizations about their fates: a more nuanced intermingling, for example, of Butter’s flowering self-consciousness and his burgeoning awareness of what it meant to come from a Uniontown, Pennsylvania, slum referred to as “The Bottom.”

When we first meet the band—comprised of middle-school-aged black children—they have just had their most recent rehearsal interrupted by the sound of gunshots from the street below. McBride’s writing captures moments like this in a matter-of-fact and somewhat gleefully comic register that could seem incompatible with the scene but ultimately isn’t. It is the mid-1970s, and the economy is grim; the steel mills and factories have closed, spelling the long decline of this part of the country where Appalachia meets the rust belt. Black communities here, which are rarely depicted in books and films noticed by people on the coasts, have been hit as hard as white ones.

McBride adopts Butter’s southwestern Pennsylvania Negro dialect with verisimilitude and ease, and the section of his book set in the Bottom is both intimate and wide-ranging, poignant and oblique. Setting up and bringing off an ironic conclusion is among McBride’s greatest gifts as a writer. But when his material doesn’t present an opportunity to wield that gift deftly, this strategy can sometimes feel a bit pat.

“Buck Boy,” the book’s second story, ought to build to great emotional power and never quite does. Its…

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