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[249] A Visitation of Spirits – Randall Kenan

It was then that he would realize that he was different and vulnerable and that the simple joy of being in love and expressing it with straightforward passion was denied him, and he would retreat into an indigo funk. [153]

Horace Cross is smart and nerdy; but the 16-year-old is tired of his suffocating life. He wants to spend the rest of his appointed time on earth not as a torture human being but as a bird. Through the practice of sorcery he summons a demon that will spirit him away from his family and achieve metamorphosis. In a night of horror and transformation, unexpected demons tear him away from his soul. Instead of turning him into a bird, the demons make him to be a ghost and situate him back to the stations of his life: the church dominated by his aunts and grandfather, and in which his elder cousin Thomas Malachi Greene has become a preacher, the school where he discovers knowledge and wisdom, the forbidden pleasures of sex, and all his past dreams that have hellishly turned into reality.

[Horace] had been created by this society. He was a son of the community, more than most. His season for existing, it would seem, was for the salvation of his people. But he was flawed as far as the community was concerned. First, he loved men; a simple, normal deviation, but a deviation this community would never accept. And second, he didn’t quite know who he was. [188]

The root of his suffering is sexuality: homosexuality and cultural homophobia. In school he befriends with a sissy boy whom he later jilts fir a group of well-to-do white jocks in an effort to dismantle his bookish image and assimilate. Against his conservative and religious background of his family, Horace’s existence is a continual battle between repression and desire. A professional male black actor is what convinces Horace that his mind has lied to his heart.

He suspected that his family might object to his action. But he had no idea they would pronounce treason and declare war. From top to bottom, uniformly, they condemned him. It was not the piercing of his ear, it was what it represented, they said . . . Then white boys done took a hold of your mind . . . Shames me to see you come to this. [238-9]

In a style that is literary and volatile, reminiscent of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, A Visitation of Spirits is interwoven with memory that fits past events into a matrix of the present. Whether or not Horace is truly possessed by demons that he invites, he is possessed by his own sexuality, and to control and suppress that desire he is rendered hallucinated (or schizophrenic). Shares the same struggle but from a different root is Reverend James Greene, who lives the tradition and expectation that Horace feels he has betrayed. James Greene is the norm by which Horace Cross is raised; but in fulfilling the hopes of family, choked and haunted by the ghost of his unfaithful wife, he is also denied of his promise. That the norms cannot provide an answer to Horace makes it all the more ironic for demons to deliver a way of life that is not condoned.

257 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]


10 Responses

  1. You have done a wonderful job of summarizing this one. I find it heartbreaking to hear about this poor guy’s suffering…it is just not right. Even though it is fiction, you know this story is coming from a very specific place in the author’s heart.

    • When I first heard about this book, it reminds me of The Lovely Bones, which, compared to Kenan, is more spare. It is so much more repressed because of homophobia and cultural resistance.

  2. I’ve never heard of this one, but think it sounds fascinating. And of course, the comparison to Toni Morrison intrigues me! This sounds like a complex and emotional novel, and is one that I’d definitely be interested in reading in the future.

  3. Great review because you evoked feelings from me for this poor boy! I hate to imagine any poor soul suffering because of how he feels or who he is.
    Sounds like an intriguing but quite emotional read.

  4. Really a good review, Matthew. I would also suggest Kenan’s “Let the Dead Bury the Dead”, a collection of short stories. Actually, anything he has written–a great writer!

    • Thanks for pointing this book to my direction. I can see Toni Morrison in Randall Kenan and vice versa. It’s very dense reading with folklore incorporated into the narrative of the stories. I’m sure this book is not the last of Kenan that I will read.

  5. You certainly make me want to read this book. On the other hand the wide-ranging and insightful nature of your review almost makes me think I have read it!
    Still, I will get hold of it and enjoy it in full, encouraged by the Toni Morrison allusion and my own delight in the magic realsitic edge to such writing,

  6. […] book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation? A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan, Fixer Chao by Han Ong, The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, The 19th […]

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