Monday, March 12, 2018

Flying Home by Ralph Ellison

I wanted to be sure and review Ralph Ellison's Flying Home. Unfortunately, I can't find my copy of the book, and there's not much in the way of excerpts online. Which is a real shame because Ellison is an author that can hardly be summed up via review. Certainly there's plenty thematically in Invisible Man and this collection to unpack, plenty of modernist allusions to decipher, and plenty of stylistic tricks to dissect. But ultimately, Ellison is a visceral author, an ostensible modernist who mocks the often mock-chaos of modernist prose with some of the most fiery verbiage I've ever experienced.

That experience, in Flying Home, kicks in right away, with 'A Party Down at the Square'. Said party is a lynching, observed by a young white kid--the only white protagonist in the book--and the story is absolutely harrowing. Some authors paint pictures for the reader to observe--Ellison in high drama mode is Jackson Pollack, throwing paint wildly and in control, and daring the reader to look away. As things escalate, a woman is electrocuted, immolated really, a plane crashes, a riot nearly breaks out, and yet Ellison manages to keep the lynching, an event so sadly common in American history that it can almost seem mundane, as the real horror. And this isn't as simple as a man hanging from a tree either. Ellison literally burns it down as a miscarriage of justice descends into an infernal orgy of violence and fear.

But most of the collection finds Ellison in a more pastoral mode. There is a several story cycle in the middle following the same characters, friends Buster and Riley, which form a loose Bildungsroman spanning their grade school years discussing the omission of black war heroes from their cirriculums until Riley's first sexual encounter, with the "town witch". Presented in chronological order, Ellison's voice grows more assured, reaching it's apex in the witch story and one where a young Riley decides to tie parachutes to chickens, a vignette that swings from humor to tragedy quickly and innocently.

The rest of the collection is worthwhile, but apart from 'Party', the only story here that really captures the controlled burn of Invisible Man is 'King of the Bingo Game', a frenzied fever dream that follows a poor black man as he plays bingo to win money to survive. But the prose is mad, jumping back and forth in time, swooping woozily through the head of a desperate man whose susperstition has fixated on a bingo wheel in front of an unsympathetic crowd. When the police show up, there's only one possible ending. But like the "boxing" scene in Invisible Man, Ellison ratchets up the tension, madness, and sympathy in equal measure so the anticlimax hits like a chick hitting a barn floor from 20 feet.

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