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Randall (G.) Kenan Biography

horace york american novel

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1963. Education: University of North Carolina, B.A. 1985. Career: Editor, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1985-89; lecturer, Sarah Lawrence College, 1989—, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1989—, and Columbia University, New York, New York, 1990—. Awards: MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1990.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Visitation of Spirits. New York, Grove Press, 1989.

Short Stories

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and Other Stories. San Francisco, Harcourt, 1992.

Other

James Baldwin. New York, Chelsea House, 1994.

Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. New York, Knopf, 1999.

Contributor, Crossing the Color Line: Readings in Black and White, edited by Suzanne W. Jones. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

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Critical Studies:

The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller's Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan by Trudier Harris, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1996.

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James Baldwin, about whom Randall Kenan has written eloquently, used to say with characteristic irony that by being both black and gay in America, he had "hit the jackpot." If so, then Kenan is a Powerball winner; he is black, gay, and southern—and rural southern, too, as Kenan's hometown of Chinquapin, North Carolina, in contrast to Baldwin's native New York City, is a community so small and obscure that most people even in Raleigh and Chapel Hill have never heard of it. Chinquapin is transmogrified into Tims Creek in Kenan's two books of fiction to date, the novel A Visitation of Spirits and the story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, an output slim but nevertheless sufficient to establish Kenan as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary American fiction.

In alternating chapters, A Visitation of Spirits tells two related Tims Creek stories, separated in time by more than a year. on April 29 and 30, 1984, brilliant but troubled teenager Horace Thomas Cross, plagued by his community's high expectations and by his shame at his secret homosexuality, puts into effect a strange plan drawn from folklore, an attempt to escape his circumstances by turning himself into a bird. Horace's clumsy ritual succeeds only in summoning evil spirits who may or may not exist outside Horace's fevered imagination but who force poor Horace to re-live the most tormenting episodes of his young life. The reader gradually realizes that these are the last hours of that life, as Horace descends into a suicidal phantasmagoria akin to that experienced by Quentin Compson in another snall-town southern novel of fractured April chronology, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

In the alternating chapters of Kenan's novel, which take place on December 8 of the following year, Horace's older cousin, the Rev. Jimmy Green, grudgingly drives his aged aunt and uncle to visit a sick relation. The shadow of Horace's death still lies over the family, and tensions in the car run high as Jimmy ponders his troubled marriage and as the decades-long bickering between the aunt and uncle reaches a frightening new pitch of intensity and revelation.

Much of the commentary on A Visitation of Spirits focused on its gay themes and its Toni Morrison-like use of magic realism to convey the African-American experience. Yet the novel is remarkable, too, for its closely observed and compassionate depiction of the bickering old-timers, and for its witty and insightful examination of pop-culture appropriation on the margins of society. Certainly Horace derives more inspiration from his white-bread comic-book collection than from any more authentically African-American influence.

Though Let the Dead Bury Their Dead is a collection of stories rather than a novel per se, most of it is set in Tims Creek or among its expatriates, and characters from A Visitation of Spirits reappear—Horace being a notable exception. Moreover, consecutive stories within the book give the reader different perspectives on the same characters. For example, the Right Reverend Hezekiah Barden, the fire-breathing homophobe who so terrifies Horace in the novel, reappears in one story in a comic supporting role, as an unwelcome dinner guest who pries into everyone's business. In another story, however, the reader shares Barden's point of view as he preaches a platitudinous eulogy over the casket of a parishioner who was his secret lover; Barden's simultaneous private eulogy for the woman is quite different from the public one.

The collection thus has the feel of an episodic novel, if not a sequel then certainly a continuation of the Tims Creek story begun in A Visitation of Spirits. Again Kenan displays a flair for dialogue, for the rhythms of country speech. Again his senior citizens are his most fully realized characters. Again he makes Tims Creek a magical place: In one story, a hog apparently bestows the gift of clairvoyance; in another, a very out-of-place Asian man falls from the sky. More often in the stories than in the novel, however, Kenan allows himself to be funny, culminating in the title story, which is partially a parody of the academic folkloric study and partially a fond homage to our funniest folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston.

Having placed Tims Creek and himself on the landscape of American fiction, at an age when many young writers are just beginning to put stamps onto their self-addressed envelopes, Kenan then turned to non-fiction, most notably to the seven-year odyssey of cross-country interviewing that resulted in the nearly 700 pages of the impressive Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Confronted with the many faces of black American culture, Kenan concludes that it was always postmodern, because "folks made it up as they went along." One hopes that Kenan, having shaken the road dust from his feet, now feels like making up some new stories of his own. Tims Creek, like Faulkner's Jefferson, is a locale too rich in possibilities to leave unvisited for long.

—Andy Duncan

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