Title: Five Carat Soul
Author: James McBride
Rating – 5/5
‘See, God favors the righteous. He favors us with words!…. Words, boy! Not a pistol or knife or cannon lingering in the whole bunch! Just words, passed from one ear to the next! Oh, yes, I wish I was lettered. Them.. words just lingers in my mind. They floats about me from day to day. Just… words they is. But powerful enough. Righteous, I’d say. Them… words got bone in ’em!….'”
“The Fish Man Angel
Many familiar with the work of National Book Award winning author James McBride, note that this ten-story collection dynamically strikes upon his “obsessions“: race, masculinity, and war. I, however, entered this collection unfamiliar with McBride’s work, though I had heard his name. I picked this book up from the shelf because I was intrigued by the title, and I purchased the book because of the dedication, To Sonny Rollins, who showed me the Big Picture.
So, I began the not knowing what expect. The stories are linked by the themes of race, masculinity, and war. But there is also a common thread on the power of words. The power is stated flat out by a stableman in “The Fish Man Angel,” where President Abraham Lincoln overhears an interaction between his coachman and his stablemen and then his stableman and the stablemen’s son that later sparks his giving the Emancipation Proclamation.
Another example of the power words give can be found in an unrelated story about Abraham Lincoln. “Father Abe” tells the story of an orphaned, mixed child named Abe Henry Lincoln. Civil War soldiers stationed near the orphanage where Little Abe lives joke that he is the son of the Abraham Lincoln. Little Abe believes them and one night runs off to meet his father. When Little Abe meets a soldier in a black infantry named Sargeant Abe Porter, he does not want to leave him. Though Porter protests, something the boy says causes Porter to do the unthinkable, and makes one of his men yell at Little Abe, “Be quiet! Whatever you said to him, don’t say it to me, for God’s sake, less’n you’ll have me in as much trouble as him.”
The power of words in relation to youth may be where McBride excels, for the heart of the collection is arguably a standout four-story sub-collection named “The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band.” These linked stories offer sketches of life growing up in The Bottom, navigated by a young narrator named Butter and his middle-school-aged bandmates. These stories feel like the heart of the book– McBride is adept at capturing the nuances of The Bottom where words may matter most for they shape the kids the stories are about. In “Ray-Ray’s Picture Box,” everyone ignores Ray-Ray’s complaints of hearing a wind rushing through his head, until it later has devastating consequences. In “Blub” Butter describes his former friend charged with murder as “the wrong man.” The phrase sets Butter’s mother off, who insists “‘He’s no man!… Just a silly, stupid boy,” to an increasingly annoyed Butter who does not fully understand. Possibly the most poignant of this subset of stories, though, may be the last one, focused on the Butter’s friend “Goat.” In contemporary vernacular, the GOAT is the Greatest Of All Time. Though we do not know how Goat came about his nickname, Goat may just be that for The Bottom. He’s a great drummer and a fast runner — the fastest in The Bottom. When his teacher notices Goat’s potential, she sets off to get him a scholarship to a good high school out of The Bottom. But the process becomes heavy when a letter comes with weighty words that shock.
Words — whether written, rapped, whispered, spoken, or thought — have power and impact in each of the worlds crafted in this brilliant collection McBride has created over the course of 40 years. They make you marvel, make you laugh, make you question, make you ponder. They leave you wanting more.