James McBride's 'Five-Carat Soul' crackles with the master's energy

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James McBride, author of "Five-Carat Soul."

Five-Carat Soul

By James McBride

Riverhead. 308 pp. $27


Reviewed by

Rosalind Bentley


The stories in James McBride's latest book often feel like parables. Take, for instance, the suite of tales called "Mr. P and the Wind." In these stories, McBride creates an urban zoo narrated by a talking lion named Hal. Hal sounds like the customer in the neighborhood barbershop who has recounted every twist and turn in the joint for the last 20 years. The lion leads a pitiful but proud band of animals who believe there is something greater for them outside the bars and glass of their pens and aquariums.

In "The Christmas Dance," African American and Puerto Rican World War II veterans know an ancient truth and are honor-bound to it. McBride also takes us on a detour to the gates of hell in "The Mourning Bench." There, in line, is a bodacious boxer who can't but bring to mind Muhammad Ali. And there's something about the way the Gatekeeper lands a punch that brings to mind Joe Frazier.

McBride's storytelling gifts, showcased in his National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird, are on full display in Five-Carat Soul. The characters are disparate, but McBride is such an agile writer that each voice feels authentic and somehow familiar. Taken together, the stories speak, if not directly to one another, then to a greater humanity and wisdom we all desire.

Each story gently or subversively leads to a revelation you turn over and over. They feel like fables even when the characters are dealing with the ugliest bits of reality.

What do the actions of a Korean grocer say about the way we view victims and perpetrators of crimes? This is but one of the moral questions asked in the suite of stories called "The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band." Those four stories introduce us to a group of teens in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Uniontown, Pa., in the Vietnam War era. The neighborhood is impoverished, but does that mean the lives of its residents are as well?

"The Fish Man Angel," one of two stories in which Abraham Lincoln makes an appearance, has traces of McBride's first novel, Song Yet Sung, where the gift of prophecy figures heavily. The vets of "The Christmas Dance" recall those of the novel Miracle at St. Anna. Yet the work is not derivative. It crackles with the bright energy of an author who - when he's not writing prose - is an accomplished jazz musician. It's there in the way the teens of Uniontown rib each other, never missing a conversational beat, and in the way the animals riff when they talk to each other through their cages.

These are stories of and from the soul.


This review originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.