If I Had Two Wings: Stories
by Randall Kenan
Norton, Aug 4, 2020
224 Pages, $25.95
Like James Baldwin, Randall Kenan’s contribution to the world of letters is enhanced by the ways that his fiction and nonfiction come into rich dialogue with each other. And so, in August 2020, after waiting nearly thirty years for a new book of stories, it was with tremendous delight that his readers received If I Had Two Wings. It was with even greater shock when three weeks later we received news of Kenan’s untimely death.
Randall Kenan’s early career was launched three decades ago with two books of fiction, both set in Tims Creek, North Carolina, the fictional counterpart to Kenan’s hometown of Chinquapin. A Visitation of Spirits (1989), Kenan’s celebrated debut novel, as well as the collection of stories that followed, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, explore what Zora Neale Hurston once called the “best kept secret in America,” the lives of “average, struggling, non-morbid” African Americans.[i] Realistic depictions of such characters as they encounter everyday challenges have always been Kenan’s métier, and yet he understood that to render fully the grandeur of those lives was to interpret their mythic qualities. Kenan has long been considered one of America’s foremost practitioners of magical realism, with stories of demonic possession, talking pigs, magical books, and murderous zombie ancestors. After those first two auspicious books of fiction, Kenan turned his attention largely to nonfiction, publishing several monumental discussions of race in America, and editing several other works, including The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings of James Baldwin (2010).
If I Had Two Wings, longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award, is the product of a master working at the height of his powers, perhaps even Kenan’s strongest work, if success be measured by the degree to which a unit amount of prose is saturated with lived and imagined experience. Although the Tims Creek folk of these tales will be familiar to Kenan’s readers, and though the stories treat themes that occupied Kenan throughout his career—religion, race, family, sexuality—If I Had Two Wings takes up these issues with a freshness that feels somehow both of the moment and timeless.
When compared to Kenan’s earlier fiction, If I Had Two Wings reflects a Tims Creek that is less remote, less swamp-locked away from the rest of the world. Perhaps this difference reflects an age in which we are all connected by the internet, by interstate highways and international flights. You will still find here plenty of home-grown magical realism: ghostly visitations, the cameo appearance of a conjure woman, a maroon society fed by a giant catfish sent like manna from an ancestral spirit, and even the requisite magical hog. Frequently in these stories, however, the role of the uncanny is filled by what passes for magic in our media-saturated contemporary world: chance encounters with celebrity. A woman is offered an incredible sum of money to leave her home and go cook for the billionaire Howard Hughes. A widow blessed with healing touch is used by her pastor, the Reverend Jamie “Spike” Eggleston, to bring further attention to his twenty-thousand-member Atomic Church of God and Worship Center. And, in “When We All get to Heaven,” a middle-aged plumber on vacation with his wife in New York City is swept along by a horde of fans jockeying for a chance to meet the aging rock icon Billy Idol. After accepting a V.I.P. invitation to Idol’s evening concert, and listening to music he finds “monotonous and straightforward and boring” (20), Ed Phelps falls asleep that night in his New York hotel bed, where he dreams of working in the fields as a youth alongside his singing grandfather. In each of these stories, the integrity of the common folk is tested, and, yet, that the attention of celebrities (and, by extension, the larger world) is so frequently and magnetically drawn to them seems a further testament to what was once commonly referred to as their soul power.
Fundamental to the structure of many of these stories is the journey forth, followed by a return home, a pattern that defines even the lives of the most senior residents of Tims Creek. In “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water,” eighty-two-year-old Mrs. Streeter is vacationing with her granddaughter in Barbados when dual hurricanes simultaneously bear down upon the island nation and her home back in eastern North Carolina. When Mrs. Streeter flies home to discover the wreckage left by a Category 5 storm, she is troubled by a freezer full of rotting meat and spoiled vegetables from her garden. She is more troubled to learn of the disappearance of Marisol Cifuentes, the Mexican woman she had hired to clean her house and whose family has suffered a series of devastating losses as a result of the storm. Through her travels and relationships, Mrs. Streeter, like others in Tims Creek, has become a global citizen.
This pattern of venturing forth from Tims Creek into the broader world and returning to reconnect with family and an agrarian heritage finds perhaps its greatest resonance in two stories of gay, black men in their middle years. Men adrift between homes and relationships, these protagonists have pursued their educations at Howard and Chapel Hill and then made their fortunes and reputations and romantic lives in Washington and New York before reaching that inflection point when they begin to feel inexorably drawn back toward rural North Carolina. In “Resurrection Hardware or, Lard & Promises,” a narrator named Randall Kenan leaves his prominent career as a New York food editor to purchase a 203-year-old farm house northwest of Chapel Hill and to launch a new chic magazine devoted to southern cooking called Lard & Promises. During renovation of the historic property, Randall is abandoned by his lover and visited by a ghost whose skin is “so very dark” (113). When he makes inquiries with a local historian, Randall learns that his new home had served as a safe house on the Underground Railroad, owned by Quakers who were “exterminated” (127). Any reader of Kenan will not be surprised that in this story, as throughout the collection, the return home, and the return South, is complicated by a reckoning with both accelerating change and the changing same. Looking back on an early date with his now absent lover, coffee in a “rather bohemian place on the Upper West Side,” Randall remembers being asked if he missed North Carolina, to which he responded, “Only when I’m there” (115).
A similarly ambivalent homecoming appears in the story “I Thought I Heard the Shuffle of Angels’ Feet.” In early middle-age, Cicero Cross is summoned home to Tims Creek from his palatial home in Maryland, in order to talk his Uncle Dax into selling the family land, one hundred acres Dax inherited from his grandfather. Uncle Dax lies immobilized by diabetes and an amputated leg, dying in an assisted living community and raging at his nephew about the younger generation’s plans to cover medical expenses by selling ancestral land to the ruthless Percy Terrell, whose family, we learn in a later story, has purchased a sizeable portion of York County real estate previously owned by black farmers (186). Cicero, a member of the talented tenth of his generation, fled Tims Creek after high school and then, after graduating from Howard University, became a successful architect. While trying to placate his raging Uncle Dax and still mourning the death (from AIDS) of his world-famous-architect partner, Cicero meets a high school fling and begins exploring what might be the next phase of his life. Cicero Cross comes to understand that moving forward involves looking back, and both require him to accept the burden of history rooted in the home he left many years earlier.
In 2004, shortly after Kenan had returned to North Carolina to join the English faculty at his alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, I asked him how moving closer to Chinquapin affected his writing, and he responded by saying, “Even if I’m going home and helping my mama hoe the collard greens or pick the beans, I’m still on the outside, in a way.”[ii] Throughout the body of his work, this was Kenan’s great theme, the challenge of going home again, just as it was for his fellow North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe. And, as with Wolfe, for Kenan the idea of going home again conjured a wide range of meanings. In his mammoth travelogue, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Knopf, 1999), Kenan chronicles his six-year odyssey across North America exploring African American communities, beginning and ending in his hometown of Chinquapin, North Carolina. In the Preface to that work, Kenan remarks, “My sojourn in North America had more to do with my sojourn in myself, into my own dark soul. … My people? That was the dynamic that informed this work: Do I have a people? Do I belong? And to what?”[iii] These meditations echo throughout his most recent collection of stories and each of the lives explored therein. Moreover, If I Had Two Wings confronts readers with the centrality of these questions for all people, even ourselves.
[i] Quoted in Randall Kenan, Walking on Water, Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (Vintage, 1999), p. 16.
[ii] “A Visitation with Randall Kenan: an interview by George Hovis with art by Antoine Williams” North Carolina Literary Review, 28 (2019), p. 68.
[iii] Kenan, Walking on Water, pp. xi-xii.