The National Book Award winner for “The Good Lord Bird” releases his first collection of short fiction, all set in a working-class black neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
by James McBride
Riverhead, 320 pp., $27
The writer and musician James McBride proves once again that he is a master conjurer of African Americana with his new book of charmed, imaginative short stories, “Five-Carat Soul.”
The title is worthy of note primarily because that phrase winds up in a quartet of associated tales in this collection that are all set in a working-class black neighborhood in Pittsburgh known by locals as The Bottom. That’s where a motley group of five kid musicians have formed the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band, which tirelessly rehearses above a Chinese grocery and takeout joint in preparation for extremely scarce gigs.
Full of humor, down-home vernacular and slightly twisted nostalgia, McBride’s coming-of-age stories about this crew’s adventures go down like warm milk sneakily spiked with a shot of whiskey.
In “Buck Boy,” the hilarious teen narrator and his bandmates witness the aftermath as Mr. Woo fatally shoots a 17-year-old tough named Buck Boy, who robs his store. Soon, the Rev. Jenkins, a slick minister with a fondness for candy-color suits, other people’s home cooking and protest marches, organizes demonstrations against Mr. Woo to run him out of the neighborhood and get justice for Buck Boy, who nobody even liked when he was alive but who has become a hero and symbol of racial oppression in death.
Most Read Stories
“Ray-Ray’s Picture Box” tells what happens when Ray-Ray, the little brother of a band member, shows off a box of his dad’s nudie pictures to the fellas at the secret neighborhood hangout, only to have an older kid from the neighborhood commandeer the box and start selling the photos for 25 cents apiece.
“Nothing in my life put me ready to look at them pictures,” the same narrator from the previous story tells us. “It put girls in a whole new light … There was all types of girls, doing all types of things.”
Childhood and children’s brushes with grown-up concerns recur as themes in “Five-Carat Soul.”
In “Father Abe,” a…