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 ending—an affirmation of a central character’s basic decency—fails to make good on the climactic resolution it appears to be building toward. Buck Boy Robinson, a young black man of seventeen or so, lies dead on the street, a fistful of dollars in one hand and a knife in the other. Mr. Woo, the Asian grocer who killed him during an apparent robbery, instantly becomes an object of fascination for ambulance-chasing news reporters from nearby Morgantown, West Virginia, and a target of ire for the Reverend Hillary Jenkins, a loud-dressing religious huckster masquerading as a “community leader” who, according to Butter, is never far off “whenever there’s a fresh-cooked chicken or a television camera around.”
A controversy ensues, the type that seems more common today than it would have been in the 1970s, before body cameras and Ta-Nehisi Coates, performative wokeness and Internet callout culture—even if today’s Copwatch network is but another iteration of what the Black Panthers were formed to do in the first place and jackleg black preachers are still a dime a dozen. Jenkins starts a protest march that initially draws only forty people or so in front of the store. Soon, however, according to Butter, “a bunch of white people come from town and from all the big towns around show up wearing T-shirts that say CARAO, which means Coalition Against Racism and something.”
Mr. Woo goes into hiding temporarily, and his store is closed. This chagrins the band greatly; their gear is locked in the space above Mr. Woo’s, and they can retrieve it only when his store is open. The young men of the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band all knew Buck Boy and, like almost everyone else in the community, didn’t think much of him. Butter informs us ruefully that when other young people were killed by police or raped and murdered by family members, there was no community outcry, “but Buck Boy, who robbed a school bus and tried to rob Mr. Woo, he’s a hero now.”
The Robinsons are a sorry lot, perhaps even poorer than the average citizens of the Bottom. The story introduces us to a community where those who profit from outrage are often the last to care about the dead; Buck Boy’s mother takes the $4,000 in donations that Jenkins has raised for the funeral, pockets it, and chooses to bury her son in a cheap pine box, angering the throngs of mourners who gathered for the funeral she skipped. According to Butter’s sister, a friend to the sister of the deceased, Buck Boy’s mother “bought a brand-new refrigerator plus a giant TV set and some new couches.” Mr. Woo, who is first to the gravesite at the end of the story, springs for a better casket for the man he killed.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the deaths of so many troubled young black men were greeted with such benevolence by the perpetrators of their demise in the America in which James McBride has woven this fictional, hard-to-believe but hard-to-deny 1970s Negro slum? I’m sure I’m not the only person who will leave this book hoping so and knowing, having been a living American Negro for over three decades now, that such a future is a pipe dream. McBride never considers what it would require to build the kind of social reality that would permit acts of empathy like Mr. Woo’s, or what it would take for blacks to have the economic self-determination, personal safety, and political agency that would make such deaths rare—either among colored folks in southwestern Pennsylvania four decades ago or on the streets of Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, Charleston, Milwaukee, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, or Cincinnati today.
Surely some of that can be pegged on the narrator. The centerpiece suite of stories in Five-Carat Soul, the four-part tale of the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band of which “Buck Boy” is the first entry, lacks an omniscient figure who can climb into Mr. Woo’s soul and figure out why an Asian immigrant in a black neighborhood in the middle of the 1970s in an increasingly flailing America would pay for the casket of the young black man who tried to rob him.
But McBride inhabits a satisfying variety of first- and third-person voices in these tales, from middle-aged Jewish train-set collectors to preteen Negro child artists. This mélange of perspectives frees him to set up moments of unexpected levity and grace, such as Mr. Woo’s odd generosity in the face of guilt. McBride does this without going outside the bounds of “respectability politics” as it is practiced in the speeches of President Barack Obama at Morehouse or the entire political career of Colin Powell. And that’s okay too, I suppose. Five-Carat Soul might not transcend the political imagination of McBride’s generation of black American thought leaders in a way that is pleasing to millennials seeking a bolder vision of both a black American past and future, but it still manages to examine the contradictions, salient beauties, and lasting tragedies of the American Negro experience in a way that will resonate broadly.
McBride has often mined grim circumstance for gallows humor. His novel Song Yet Sung (2008) is a tale of fugitive slavedom featuring a female protagonist that is much funnier than Colson Whitehead’s much more celebrated The Underground Railroad (in which Whitehead for the first time kept his own phantasmagorical comedic sensibility under wraps in pursuit of Oprahfied seriousness). McBride’s previous work of fiction, The Good Lord Bird (2013), a tragicomic rumination on the life of John Brown, won the National Book Award in part for its ability to look at the darkest chapters of American history and crack a smile.
Narrated by an androgynous black child born into slavery who is kidnapped by Brown and mistaken for a little girl, The Good Lord Bird is a crowd-pleasing picaresque in which Brown comes off as a figure by turns absurd and magnetic, foolish and prophetic. No place or person escapes McBride’s comic sensibility unscathed, from northern abolitionists to proslavery Missourians. Frederick Douglass, who often comes off as egotistical and boorish, lashes out at the child for calling him by a shortened version of his first name: “Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?”
McBride cut his teeth as a journalist in the 1980s and early 1990s at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. He came to prominence in 1995 with his best-selling memoir The Color of Water, which was billed as a tribute to his white mother, the former Ruchel Dwajra Zylska. She raised James and his eleven siblings in housing projects under a cloak of secrecy, pretending to be a light-skinned black woman and telling him little about her past as a runaway. The daughter of an Orthodox rabbi from Poland, she was abused by her father after they fled from pogroms in Central Europe to the American South, where they faced discrimination anew. She converted to Christianity after moving to New York and marrying a black preacher, the Reverend Andrew D. McBride, who died of cancer months before his only son with Ruchel, who later changed her name to Ruth McBride Jordan, was born.
McBride grew up in the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, which became the setting for the second of two underwhelming films he wrote for Spike Lee, Red Hook Summer (2012). The first of those films, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), is based on McBride’s 2002 debut novel. It tells the story of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division, who took refuge in a small Tuscan village during the later stages of World War II. They suffered great casualties on August 12, 1944, at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, where the Waffen-SS and the Brigate Nere massacred nearly six hundred residents and refugees, including over a hundred children, in what has been widely viewed as a war crime.
Both of McBride’s collaborations with Lee suffer from problems that have more to do with the mechanics of filmmaking and the difficulties of adaptation than the quality of their writing. McBride has long been preoccupied with the stories of black soldiers and with the ways in which black identity is often bound up in the machinations of the American war machine. The specter of wartime, or the forgotten accoutrements of it, appear in almost every story in Five-Carat Soul, from “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” about a savvy train collector who attempts to pry a priceless, one-of-a-kind train set that once belonged to the son of Robert E. Lee away from a religious black couple who have little idea how valuable it is, to “The Fish Man Angel,” in which Abraham Lincoln grapples with the death of his son Willie during a late-night visit to Willie’s pony. “Father Abe” centers on a recently freed ex-slave child of mixed parentage who lives in a colored orphanage converted from a former munitions factory and convinces himself that he is Lincoln’s son, knowing nothing of Lincoln’s grief.
The story of the 92nd Infantry is recapitulated in “The Christmas Dance.” Herb, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia in the mid-1970s, is trying to glean from two tight-lipped, battle-scarred veterans just what took place when the 92nd Infantry was attacked by Germans in the Belgian Ardennes. An army intelligence report refers to the episode as a “skirmish,” but when Herb notices that fifty-three of seventy soldiers from the 92nd Division’s colored 366th Regiment were killed, he knows something is fishy. The elegant, mayor-like Judge, a savvy politician and community leader, walks with a cane and used to sit on the bench, but plays numbers like any common street Negro. He answers Herb’s questions readily at first, but as Herb begins to pry he makes himself less available. Over lunch at Sylvia’s—back when they still served their food on trays, buffet-style—Judge introduces Herb to Carlos, a Puerto Rican who works at the post office and lives a relatively bleak existence in a small tenement on 147th Street. He too proves unwilling to reckon honestly with the horrors of the past.
In stories like this and “Father Abe” McBride articulates how sacrifice in military service has rarely allowed black Americans to win the full benefits of the American project, an edifice for which they can be bricklayers but never equity holders. Here is where we find McBride at his most interesting as both an aesthete and a “race man,” as a writer of sparkling sentences and a courier of social truths that remain obscured by the all-too-unexamined faith our white countrymen have in the nation’s founding ideals. “Father Abe,” one of the briefest stories in the book, climaxes with the desertion of a black sergeant, Abe Porter, whose white commander is more interested in a passing appearance by a soon-to-be-assassinated Republican president than in the child for whose freedom he and his men have recently risked their lives. He refers to the boy as “contraband.”
When the commander saunters back into the darkness on the other end of the encampment, the Negro soldiers can go back to speaking freely. The language blacks use to articulate their own existential crises often comes out wrong when a white authority figure is around to gaslight them, or simply to misunderstand. We see this quandary again and again in McBride’s stories, from wartime Virginia to Nixon-era Pennsylvania to the gates of hell: the collection’s oddest and least satisfying story, “The Moaning Bench,” concerns a recently deceased boxer, Rachman Babatunde, who must fight both for his soul and for those of some cornfed white folks he gets to know while waiting for his judgment. The characterizations drift toward pastiche in a way that is unbecoming in the high-wire death’s waiting room story, but McBride doesn’t lose sight of his thematic panacea. The problem never comes through more powerfully than in the moment of realization Abe Porter has while he speaks to his regiment of the legacy that awaits the Negro dead of the Civil War versus that of their white countrymen:
“Something’s been digging at me ever since they told us this war is winding down,” he said. “I come to thinking. About Yancy Miles, and Irving Gooden, and Linwood Sims, God rest their souls. I come to wonder about their deliverance, and about what God wants. Not for them. For us, who has fought under other men’s rulings and is not yet gone from labor to reward. Who among us is gonna remember them? Yancy, with his cussing self, and Linwood, who could sing so good, and Irving and his brother Zeke, and all the rest of the colored who’s deadened in these fields. The white folks’ll know theirs, won’t they? They’ll write songs for ’em, and raise flags for ’em, and put ’em up in books the way they know how. But ain’t nobody but God gonna give more than a handful of feed to the ones of us who died out here fighting for our freedom. And what is that anyway?”
Four generations later, the colored soldiers in “The Christmas Dance” who helped liberate Europe are grappling with the missing legacy of their own war dead, forgotten deaths that only yield talk of light “skirmishes,” deaths absent from the parade of medals and ballyhoo about honor and the American way that the pallid believers hold fast to. Yet these men remain suspicious of those—like young, earnest Herb—who promise to set the story straight. In part, this is because they are doing their best to make amends for their own behavior in the ethically challenging theater of war in which their adulthoods were forged. This is something Herb cannot be trusted with right away. Like all scholars or investigative journalists, he has to earn the right to hear the truth first. It takes some time. Eventually Herb does get Carlos to talk, since he is the one with less to lose and a bigger hole in his heart to fill.
Judge and Carlos were complicit in the death of a friend of theirs, Clifford Johns, and several other American soldiers. In an incident the US government would rather forget, Johns ordered his fellow troops to fire artillery rounds on himself and his comrades, knowing that this would kill an even larger number of Germans. The penance Carlos and Judge devised for themselves, one that binds them together despite their very different lives and circumstances, is to keep a vow Clifford made to his wife Lillian in a letter found on his body after the “skirmish.” The two men, the celebrated black judge and the lowly Puerto Rican postman, meet every December 24 with Lillian to partake in the annual “Christmas dance” she had been promised. That dance had been taken from her because her husband believed in the mission of a country that never loved him. But those he left behind in it might grow to love themselves, and dance in memory of their dead, as American Negroes have long done, regardless of whose boot was on their throat.