‘Five-Carat Soul,” the new short-story collection by National Book Award winner James McBride (“The Good Lord Bird”), opens with such a masterpiece that it can’t help but create impossible expectations for the rest of the book. The tales certainly deliver variety as McBride alternates historical narratives with fantasy, parable, and Vietnam-era memory pieces. But the results are mixed.
The first tale, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” is set in the 1990s with roots in the old Confederacy. Narrator Leo Banskoff is a Jewish vintage-toy dealer so successful that “[e]ntire toy divisions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s shudder at the sound of my name.” When one of his contacts passes a discarded stock portfolio his way, Leo thinks he may have found his holy grail. The stock certificates, which belonged to the African-American servant of a wealthy New York family, are worthless. But tucked in with them is a photo of something priceless: a one-of-a-kind toy train commissioned by General Robert E. Lee for his five-year-old son, who died before he ever got a chance to play with it.
The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set, as it’s called, also happened to be equipped with a technological innovation that replicated in full sizecould give a military advantage to the Union or Confederacy in the Civil War. Its theft after the boy’s death by a female slave who escaped to freedom in the North led to its disappearance for 130 years. The photo in Leo’s hands is the first evidence that it survived.
Its current owner, Reverend Spurgeon Hart, is difficult to track down, however. Along with his labors “for the King of Kings,” he moonlights at a sugar factory and at a nightclub in Brooklyn. Because he’s never home, he leaves it to his wife to hand the train set over to Leo gratis.
Leo has sufficient conscience to insist on paying big bucks for this long-lost treasure. But it’s not as simple as that. Mrs. Hart’s religious temperament is ferocious, and her interrogation of Leo focuses strictly on the state of his soul. (“Got Jesus, mister?” “Well, um. I do like him . . . but can we talk about this train? And the price?”)
Fearful for the shoddy way his prize is being cared for, Leo goes to extreme lengths to track down the reverend — and ends up in a place he never anticipated. The result: a showdown between two worlds with impossible-to-reconcile values. The wild twist at the tale’s end feels like visionary liftoff.
The rest of the book doesn’t soar so high. “The Moaning Bench” is an afterlife fantasy exploring the notion of loving the evil in yourself enough “to surrender it to God, who washes it clean.” “The Christmas Dance” concerns a bargain made by African-American participants in a vicious battle in World War II Italy. They’re reluctant to share their secret with a young scholar who desperately needs their story to complete his graduate degree. Both stories offer intrigue and appeal, but they don’t dazzle.
In two other tales, Abraham Lincoln turns up. “The Fish Man Angel” finds the insomnia-stricken president accidentally eavesdropping on a White House stableman who provides unexpected inspiration for Lincoln’s signature achievement. It’s a piece of historical flight-of-fancy that works. But “Father Abe,” about an orphan persuaded that Lincoln is his father, is less successful.
Four stories collectively titled “The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band” probe a more realistic vein. They’re set in the 1970s in an impoverished black neighborhood in Uniontown, Pa.
Twelve-year-old Butter, who plays in The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band with his friends, narrates these tales. Against a backdrop of urban woes, Butter recalls episodes involving a lost cat, a stash of pornographic snapshots, and a teacher’s thwarted efforts to get a track scholarship for one of her students. Butter’s voice is wily and winning. The problem is these sketches feel like a partial glimpse of a larger book. There’s a potential novel here that McBride might want to pursue.
“Five-Carat Soul” closes with “Mr. P & the Wind,” a heavy-handed fable narrated by a lion in a zoo. Written for McBride’s nephews after they were horrified by a zoo visit, “Mr. P” is noble in impulse but deadly dull as it rambles for 65 pages. With a lighter touch and tighter pace, it could make a good children’s book. As it stands, it feels like a miscalculation.
By James McBride
Riverhead, 308 pp., $27Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.