Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
t o u r é ' s   e d g y   t a k e   o n   a f r i c a n - a m e r i c a n   m a g i c a l   r e a l i s m


© 2002
Little, Brown; 304pp
$23.95 hardcover

I HEARD about The Portable Promised Land, the short story collection written by Touré, before its publication. Usually, I don't pay any mind to an early buzz of a book that precedes its arrival on my desk. In this one instance, the book lived up to its hype. The Portable Promised Land is a remarkable collection. It's cynical, witty, sarcastic, thought-provoking, lyrical, upsetting and as seductive as a quiet suicide. Simply put, it's dangerous. Reading this collection was the equivalent of savoring the sweet sensation of rolling a dollop of warm honey on my tongue.

The Portable Promised Land is comprised of 24 stories that cover a number of aspects of living black in America, ranging from the comical to the ironic, all managing to be forceful, eloquent and graceful.

Allow me to highlight a few of my favorite short stories. The collection kicked off with "The Steviewondermobile," concerning a man who has a car that he keeps in pristine condition, and contains a state of the art Harmon Kardon sound system. The only drawback, for lack of a better word, is the sound system only plays Stevie Wonder songs. It's a cute story, and a fine introduction to the mind of Touré. I settled in, got comfortable and allowed him to lead the way.

Touré's take on race was profound and amusing in "Attack of the Love Dogma," where a secret pseudo-military armed unit kidnaps black men who date white women and attempts to deprogram them. I giggled like I had a secret. I'm sure it's bound to tick more than a few people off.

"A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love" is a stunning tale—the sort of story that launches writing careers. This story focuses on a storefront preacher who has a way with his female parishioners, and the nerve to be ambitious. "A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love" is humorous, insightful, and unforgettable.

"The Sambomorphosis" is a modern day, color-it-black rendition of the Franz Kafka's short story classic, "Metamorphosis." When I read the title, my eyebrow reached toward heaven. "Metamorphosis" happens to be one of my favorite short stories ever. "Metamorphosis" was one of two stories that were worth the cost of three credit hours I paid to attend an Introduction to Literature class I was required to take, the second being "The Barn Burning" by William Faulkner. In Touré's fable, a Black Panther couple wake up one morning to discover that their normal 5-year-old son had changed into a little black Sambo, with blackface and white lips, and he constantly has a slice of watermelon in his hand. I laughed and amen-ed throughout the reading of the story. There is quite a bit of twisted truth in the tale as it caused me to contemplate the generational clash of black folks surrounding their definition of self-respect, and how their children, having lived through and participated in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalism, held conflicting opinions and self-images. Touré outlined this societal dispute in humor, thus the disagreement became more powerful and telling.

The biggest jewels in the collection are the four Black Widow Stories: "The Commercial Channel"; "You Are Who You Kill"; "Once an Oreo, Always an Oreo"; and "The Black Widow Finale". The four stories are intertwined with the career of a female rap artist and are told by three different narrators and a business proposal. The three stories are WONDERFUL! The creation of the snow globe world of The Black Widow is all encompassing. It was as though I had a Slim-Fast diet shake for lunch and realistically found it filling and satisfying.

What absolutely floored me were the stories that consisted of one-word, or several-word sentences. As one of my friends would say, these stories were ass wipers! When I initially skimmed these pieces, I questioned if anything of value would emerge that I would find entertaining or worth my time. I certainly did! The stories entitled "The Guest!" and "We Words (My Favorite Things)" were excellent. These pieces turned out to be as poignant, witty, and hard-edged with a hypnotic, contagious rhythm as Touré's traditionally structured stories. I found myself pulsating like the cover over a pot of boiling, roiling water.

Finally, there were the lists!! "Afrolexicology: Today's Bi-Annual List of Top 50 Words of African-America"; "The African-American Aesthetics Hall of Fame or 101 Elements of Blackness"; "My History" are off the hook!! I don't know how Touré's mind works, but after reading these lists, I want to. I would prefer that I, my La-Z-Boy recliner, and three or four cans of ice cold Diet Pepsi be shrunk small enough to go inside Touré's mind, where I can just sit and watch his thoughts go by.

The Portable Promised Land is an assault of different fronts and angles generating as many reactions. Touré slapped my face one second and then had me laughing the next when he showed how silly my facial expression looked upon receiving the blow. The black experience, from the black vernacular to its social fabrication, our rightful place in the fabled American dream, along with a remarkable cast of characters are called forth by Touré to illuminate the humanity of African-Americans…to be young, gifted and black indeed.

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