Fat Time and Other Stories by Jeffery Renard Allen


Review by Walter Cummins

The contents of most short story collections are united by similarities of voice, tone, and subject matter. Despite differences of characters, dramatic issues, and even places, readers can recognize the style of a story by, say, Chekhov, Woolf, Hemingway, or Munro. Jeffery Renard Allen’s Fat Time is unique. Although the twelve stories explore some variation of the Black experience, moving from one to the next can be a radically different encounter: Allen’s method is unique for each piece. Reading this collection involves a confrontation with inventiveness. Throughout, Allen creates new realities, worlds with their own characters and characteristics—a woman with wings, servants from the moon—and even when the people and situation are familiar, Allen’s presentation makes them a fresh experience. The power of his prose allows him to realize the range of his imagination to make each story convincingly fulfilled.

The subtitle to the opening short piece, “Testimonial”—”(Supported in Belief/Verified in Fact)” —captures Allen’s approach in conferring authenticity on a distinct creation. To save his infant son from a massacre, the speaker secretes the boy in a cow’s anus and then loses sight of the cow. Years later, the son, now grown, reappears: “Little more than white flesh on a pole. Never having earned the richness of color that was his birthright. Who I knew to be my son. Smelling of shit.” The son says he is dead, and the father thinks: “An orphan. Cut off. Sweet child of original darkness. The black sanctuary of a cow’s ass. Purity outraged. Here again. His past virgin territory he could never inhabit. Birth a category of facts that can never be repeated.”

“Purity outraged” can serve as a theme for most of the stories. Despite their very different situations, they embody quests to attain or regain some form of purity. In “Fall,” it is the white race of the narrator that has suffered abuse at the hands of the dominant blacks. With a group of followers, the man seeks revenge though murder and destruction until he is captured and set on fire. His goal under a bowl of blue sky was illumination: “Everything in the world stood ready to give me its secret.” Finally, as he combusts, “I extend my body through all the curves and tunnels of the air right into the sun, right into the sun, a sun that starts to come apart over the sea.”

In addition to his made-up characters, Allen re-imagines real people and places them in relationships that never happened, as in “Orbits,” which depicts a friendship between Jimi Hendrix and Francis Bacon. Moving from Tangier to London, New York, and back to London, both the musician and the painter seek to perfect their art. For Bacon, “How sweet when something you cherish unexpectedly arrives. A painting that is all of who you are and more.” For Hendrix, “He watches the song grow, full of wind and sky and dirt and water, coming and going, rising and falling—one heap of sound.”

Actual biography is the basis for the collection’s title story. “Fat Time” imagines the experience of Jack Johnson when he came to Australia to defeat the then heavyweight champion, Tommy Burns, only to be given the diminished title of the World’s Colored Heavyweight Champion. Allen’s words capture the man’s experiences in Sydney and in the ring: “His breath blows his eyelids open whenever they try to close, so it is that he goes on seeing in the darkness, dreaming what he must.” The story ends with Johnson’s funeral after his fatal car crash after he was refused service at a white diner. In his eulogy, we hear of “the wide golden grin through which all time wants to escape.”

In “Pinocchio,” Allen emulates the voice of Miles Davis as the man reflects on his life—his career, his wives, his cold turkey drug cure, and his awareness of death. The story starts with his sister asking him to give his grandnephew a place in his band. Davis denies her request, and at the end the young man dies from the amputation of a painfully infected leg. As Davis cites his triumphs, he also knows he too will come to an end. Davis calls himself “The Prince of Darkness”: “When I step out my door, the trees go motionless, holding their leaves back. Darkness massing behind me. Like Dracula, I come in and out of being with a ghostly drift of wings. Silence and slow time. Release blackness onto whiteness.”

The final paragraph of “Fornication Camp” embodies all that the people of the collection long to achieve, although few do: “The blare of music. People began to dance. Laughter and singing and chatter flying through the air. Xavier and Dolores too, pulled body to body, sweat to sweat, into the circle. Challenged. Encouraged. Putting on their best moves. Gathering up the life of this place.”

That’s what Miles Davis, celebrating a night of musical triumph, calls a Fat Time.