The Chicago Review of Books acknowledges the unfortunate passing of Randall Kenan on August 28th, 2020. His work as a writer and educator, and contributions to the field of literature, particularly as a Black, gay writer from the South, cannot be overstated.
If I Had Two Wings, Randall Kenan’s second collection of stories, immediately pulls readers down a “dim and dingy and narrow” hallway, with “no choice but to follow along with the pack” into a room with one large mirror with goose-egg lightbulbs across the top. This first story sets the tone: at times your passage through If I Had Two Wings may narrow, but you will be swept along; Be prepared to scrutinize your surroundings, and attend to the auteur’s expertise.
Like Kenan’s first two works of fiction, these narratives revolve around Tims Creek, a fictional community based on the author’s hometown of Chinquapin, North Carolina. Many of his characters yearn for flight—literal and metaphorical—in both his debut novel, A Visitation of Spirits, and his second work, a collection of stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. The latter was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and selected as a New York Times Notable Book.
The opening story of If I Had Two Wings is set in New York City, where Isaline Phelps, “the mover and the doer of the family” is representing the First Baptist Church of Tims Creek at a convention, and her husband, Ed Phelps is following a route suggested by a fellow Tims Creek resident to a ten-dollar pastrami sandwich. So, just like Ed is making his way from Rockefeller Center down 50th Street, you can get to Tims Creek via New York City, or from anywhere really.
Several characters leave and return to Tims Creek, for an afternoon or longer, creating the impression of a small and tight-knit but still dynamic community. As with Gloria Naylor’s Brewster Place and Edward P. Jones’ Washington D.C., Kenan’s fictions are linked, their Black communities complex and vibrant. More than one story features a character named Randall Kenan, and these have a narrative intensity and interiority like Bryan Washington’s Lot, coupled with the declarative and insistent tone of Celie’s later letters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. These are linked stories about Black and queer identity rooted in universal themes: memory and regret, release and sorrow, insistence and independence.
The collection and some of the ten stories are named for spiritual songs, and several contain musical references—for not only angels, but also melodies, are borne on-air. The role of the church is not as prominent as it is in Marilynne Robinson’s linked novels—her Gilead is also based on a real small town, in Iowa (Tabor)—which revolves around faith-based community, but more akin to Diane McKinney-Whetstone’s novel Tumbling, with church members mingling in the broader community. Use of repetition, chorus-like at the sentence-level, suggests that the author builds his work aloud like church leaders practice their sermons.
Kenan’s characters worship at various altars: there are artists and chefs, rock stars and factory farmers, and even a river goddess. In “I Thought I Heard the Shuffle of Angels’ Feet”, when Cicero returns to Tims Creek to visit family, he waits for a tow truck on a York County gravel road “watching the rain come tumbling-tumbling down.” Soon he is struck by memories of a classmate and another sort of communion: “The act had not lasted long – twitches and tingles and pulses and involuntary spasms, a gasp, a sigh – and yet it felt like time inside a beloved song with no grace note at the end, which lingers and lingers on, which continues to vibrate well after the orgasm, well after the panting is done….”
These stories are accomplished and polished. The use of sensory detail is astute, pulling readers into vibrant scenes ranging from megacity streets to an assisted-living home, from a flooded basement to an eighteenth-century barn’s walls. Kenan also successfully strikes a balance between fancy and finesse, arranging stories so that characters connect naturally and easily, which builds credibility and secures readers’ engagement. But what makes this collection remarkable is its wings.
The collection’s wings are sometimes spiritual, but characters also rise to great heights via fame, ecstasy, song, imagination, and, more literally, hurricane winds. Virginia Hamilton’s illustrated collection of Black folktales, The People Could Fly, is an excellent introduction to this power, which is also at the heart of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: “For now he knew what Shalimar knew: if you surrender to the air, you could ride it.” It also soars in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “The Hospital Where” in his 2018 story collection Friday Black and in Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 video “Alright” (directed by Colin Tilley). Such works remind their audience that there is more than one way to fly.
Although some people in Tims Creek can fly (identifying them would spoil the wonder), in this collection the sense of being surrounded by winged creatures and the potential for transformation is more significant than any single character’s capacity: “It was a transmogrification, a possession, a quicksilver change.” In “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” Gloria sees “something more, a recognition, something shared, something ineffable, very like the passing of an angel in the darkness of the night.” In “Mamiwata,” Uncle Pharoah warns Mandy about dangers nearby: “I ain’t gonna try to clip your wings or nothing, but I need you to tell me you’ll be careful.”
In If I Had Two Wings’ first story, readers are caught up in Randall Kenan’s whirlwind of activity with Ed Phelps and, in the last, readers come to ground in the aftermath of a hurricane. And, through it all, Ed hears “his grandfather’s voice, and his grandfather was singing, and he heard his grandfather’s voice and his grandfather was singing.” The chorus reverberates and invites readers to spread their wings.
If I Had Two Wings
By Randall Kenan
W. W. Norton & Company
Published August 4th, 2020