I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
Toward the middle of Rion Amilcar Scott’s debut collection Insurrections, in a story called “Juba,” a black man in Cross River, MD, is arrested on the way to a job interview. He is later released with a tepid apology. It turns out to be a case of mistaken identity: the police are looking for a drug kingpin named Juba, to whom our protagonist bears a slight resemblance. As angered as this man is for the inconvenience (he misses his interview and doesn’t get the job), he is also intrigued. He makes it his mission to track down the near-legendary drug dealer, upon whom he begins to project a preternatural significance. He is right to do so: when he finally meets Juba, the famous fugitive is living an unexpectedly monastic existence, trading bags of weed for snippets of slang that he uses to translate the Bible into the local vernacular. Juba explains that the people of Cross River are losing their distinctive patois as they try more and more to sound like white people. “We done lost our tongue,” he tells the narrator. “Some shit I got to say to you, I won’t even try to say ‘cause there ain’t no words for it. I got to use more words than I would have to use if we had our language back. I got to speak slowly so you understand me, even though we from the same place. Ridiculous, but it ain’t your fault. I’m trying to complete the Cross River tongue.”
It is tempting to read Juba’s explanation as an ars poetica of sorts for Scott, who goes to great lengths to establish the anomaly that is the fictional city in which his stories are set. Cross River exists at that intersection of reality and alternative history. It was founded by the survivors of the only successful (and yet curiously obscure) slave revolt in American history, led by a man known only as Ol’ Cigar. It remains predominantly black to this day, divided into the bougie Northside and the more impoverished Southside, the latter of which is subject to routine and extreme flooding whenever the rains fall heavy. The city is home to the historically black Freedman’s University, as well as three notorious crime families (the Jacksons, Johnsons, and Washingtons). It boasts its own local sound, called Riverbeat, as well as its own local demonyms (either “Cross Riverian” or “Riverbaby,” depending on who you ask). It sits in close proximity to Port Yooga, Virginia, but also to the Wildlands, a swathe of undeveloped wilderness populated by madmen, wolf hunters, and escaped zoo animals.
That all might sound like worldbuilding worthy of Karen Russell, but Scott’s fiction is mostly absent of fabulism and whimsy. A few of the stories operate as satire — “Party Animal” describes the reverse evolution of a young man from the debate team to a state of forest-dwelling ferality, and the very brief “Klan” involves a surreal psychology experiment on the campus of Freedman’s — but most of the book exists firmly within the realm of naturalist fiction.
In “202 Checkmates,” a young girl learns to play chess from her unemployed father, who patiently instructs her in the application of the game’s lessons to real life, even as he celebrates every victory with pentecostal zeal: “He jumped and shuffled across the floor like the Holy Ghost had slithered up his pant leg.” The girl’s losses quickly reach triple digits, but she nevertheless manages to figure out those life lessons, even some that her father has yet to realize. Another story, “Confirmation,” follows thirteen-year-old Bobby in the weeks leading up to the sacrament which will (as he understands it) usher him into adulthood. He isn’t devout so much as curious, with questions regarding Jesus’s whiteness (“Damn negroes want to make everybody black,” opines his mother) and the true sinfulness of his masturbatory habits. His pastor and parents are unwilling to offer him many answers, though that doesn’t save him from having to make a Christ-like sacrifice for the sake of his sober father.
These stories, told from the viewpoint of children, are among the strongest in an uneven collection. The pieces that deal more directly with the mythology of Cross River generally do so to their own structural detriment. Stories like “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone” and “Razor Bumps” are derailed by their interest in esoteric local lore or power structures. In the latter, an amusing piece about a barber who has lost his ability to cut hair is subsumed by a subplot about a rapper, who relates to the rest of the story only in that he’s currently being blamed for the death of a police officer that the barber once knew. The text of the story features recurring excerpts from an interview with that rapper which, while echoing some of Juba’s ideas about Cross River’s exceptionalism, do nothing to elucidate the central mystery of the story. By the time a conclusion is reached, the plot has moved so far away from its principle tension that it elicits no emotion from the reader.
Similarly, the final story, “Three Insurrections,” forces a rather opaque Cross River-centric framing device over what is otherwise a story about a Trinidadian immigrant’s experience with the King assassination riots in Washington, D.C. Its Cross River material — which involves a mysterious book, a prophecy, and some unlikely family migration patterns — is the story’s weakest aspect, distracting from an otherwise compelling rumination on racial resentment and political violence.
Scott is an impressive ventriloquist, adopting a number of disparate narrative voices over the course of the book. He offers many brilliant lines (“I’ve never been one to watch weather reports. It’s more honorable to take the weather as it comes”), and writes about race, fatherhood, lust, and envy with estimable candor. Perhaps he is stuck, like nearly every artist, between what he knows how to do and what he hasn’t yet mastered. He knows how to write a small, realistic, domestic story. Neither chess nor the sacrament of confirmation are terribly fresh metaphors in 2016, but he can work them into narratives that satisfy. And yet his prose feels most alive when he’s pursuing those images and plot twists tied to the minutia of his created world, even if their thematic importance to the story at hand remains cloudy. What does it mean to rewrite the Bible in slang? And how does that redress the sting of police profiling? An answer is there, perhaps, though it has yet to find its fullest articulation.
The world of Cross River feels larger than one book, and Scott may intend for Insurrections to be the first volume in a long investigation of that city. For now, the collection feels like a miscellany of early works grafted imperfectly onto a rigid frame. (Which is fine. Many debut collections are made this way.) Scott’s imaginative capacity is prodigious, and his fictional world feels vast and riotous with potential, but Insurrections is ultimately less successful, perhaps, than the rebellion from which it takes its name.