I first learned about James McBride’s Five-Carat Soul (2017) from the incomparable Levar Burton’s brilliant podcast “LeVar Burton Reads”. You’ll remember Mr. Burton from his long-running children’s program Reading Rainbow, as well as his work on Roots, and Star Trek. On the podcast, which I listened to during one of my daily summer walks, Mr. Burton read “Goat”, a wonderful little story about a young African-American teacher who takes a special interest in one of her students and unwittingly uncovers a painful family secret.
I fell in love.
If you’ve read any other of my other McBride posts you’ll remember that I am a huge fan. Though The Good Lord Bird was quite controversial because of the author’s treatment of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass I found it beautifully irreverent and funny as heck! From his Kill “Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul I gained insight into the inner life of the iconographic musician James Brown as part and parcel of the American cultural landscape.
Of course, given my knowledge of his previous work and the lucid reading of the short story from the new collection by Mr. Burton I jumped at the opportunity to read more from this Renaissance man. (If you haven’t already done so I would highly recommend checking out Mr. McBride’s wonderfully interactive website).
The only problem was when I went to my local library’s website there were no copies to be had—all out and already requested by multiple patrons.
So, I waited
And I waited
And I waited
Finally, after several months, and while on a completely unrelated book-hunting expedition in my university library I found it!!! A brand new, as yet, uncracked copy of Five-Carat Soul! Oh glory!
I couldn’t wait to get it home.
And it was a glorious experience from start to finish.
Five-Carat Soul is fabulously innovative in that it is not simply a collection of independently conceived short stories. Rather, the reader is first treated to a haunting short story about a long-discarded, but infinitely historically powerful with implications for the contemporary moment toy railroad car in “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set”. That first story is immediately followed by the intimately related collection under the title “The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band” for which the book is named.
From there, the collection takes the reader to the distant past before transporting us to a point that most of us choose to ignore (“The Moaning Bench”), then a contemporary time that is tangibly impacted by the distant past (“The Christmas Dance”) and finally an allegory entitled “The Fish Man Angel”, before plunging the reader into what seems to me to be the real star of the text: “Mr. P and the Wind”.
Here’s the thing about this last section (without spoiling the ending): instead of a traditional “Author’s Note” the author writes about taking his two nephews to a major zoo when the two were little tikes. According to the author “They were so horrified by what they saw, I wrote Mr. P and the Wind for them” (np). It is significant that at this point the author puts the title of the “short story” in italics in that it signifies that it is, in fact, a novella, that we have just finished reading; part of, but not really part of the larger collection.
“Mr. P and the Wind” deserves to be set apart as it testifies to the wisdom of the animal kingdom, the disgusting lack of respect we, as humans who are also animals, have for it and the need for an attendance to the life after this life that we think we know.
While reading I was reminded of how, as a young parent with a misguided desire to expose my beautiful son to the larger world, I took him, first, to the Bronx Zoo and then to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, where my boy promptly fell asleep both times.
I think it speaks to my son’s innate wisdom that his little subconscious mind decided that he wanted to have no part in the exploitation, confinement, and abuse of those beautiful creatures.
Not to be deterred, a few years later I took him to Disney World where we visited a glass-enclosed exhibit of silverback mountain gorillas. He was a majestic being who made his disdain for all of us idiots pressing our various body parts flush against the glass known by walking up to the glass and then very deliberately and slowly turning his back on us. It was like a well-deserved slap in the face, and it has stayed with me every since.
This is also the kind of impact great literature can have on us—it can haunt and change us forever. Five-Carat Soul is a prime example of another great piece of literature by a profoundly gifted writer.