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book review

A Cross River of the mind in ‘The World Doesn’t Require You’

The driver’s name is James-my-man, and please don’t try to shorten it.

“Not James,” he instructs his befuddled passenger. “James-my-man. Gotta say the my man along with the James.”

Inside the hulking old Impala, vintage 1964, Rick is just trying to get some sleep, but the car is swerving all over the road. Yearning to get home to Cross River, Maryland, he’s gotten a lift with a stranger — a real character, this guy. They’re somewhere in Virginia when James-my-man brings up the Underground Railroad in a way that suggests that the two of them, both black but also both very much in the 21st century, are traveling it right now.

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Halfway through Rion Amilcar Scott’s “The World Doesn’t Require You,” a rich and extraordinary new collection rooted in an African-American present reverberant with the past, the reader has long since signed on to take its wild ride, traversing a landscape where myth meets magic realism.

“I’m a reenactor,” James-my-man says. “Do it this time every year.”

The story, whose loquacious title we’ll abbreviate as “Rolling in My Six-Fo’,” begins as full-on-funny satire, but shadows soon gather. Then someone named Aunt Harriet welcomes these two travelers to her safe house.

Aunt Harriet knows all about Cross River — she was there at the city’s founding, a couple of hundred years ago — and from the linked stories in this stylistically versatile collection, so do we: the old plantations, now reclaimed ruins unexorcised of their ugly history; the churches and the institutions of higher learning, where scholarship is sometimes based on creative fantasy; the restless, fertile music scene, with artists searching for a vital new sound to channel the city’s heartbeat; the Wildlands, thickly wooded acres rumored to be dangerous, and maybe touched with magic.

There is also the river itself, whose shapeshifting water-women might lure a man, or his enemies, to their death. Or so Cross River’s androcentric mythology would have you believe. One of the more intriguing facets of Scott’s storytelling is the misogyny that afflicts many of his male characters.

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Scott, whose 2016 debut collection, “Insurrections,” introduced readers to Cross River, has created a fictional mini-world so detailed that, for all its surreality, you begin to feel you could draw it on a map. But what he’s also tracing here is a history of oppression — and not just in the slavery that Cross River’s 19th-century founders escaped with their successful revolt, known as the Insurrection. The persistence of racism in American culture is central, but other entrenched forms of domination are here, too: the toxic hierarchies that humans, even those fleeing their own subjugation, so dependably replicate.

Such structures are seemingly anathema to Dr. Simeon Reece, a renegade academic who tries to instigate rebellion in “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,” the somewhat shaggy novella that makes up the collection’s second half. Living underground at Freedman’s University, where he teaches stealth classes for free, he plots the destruction of the self-pitying Dr. Reginald S. Chambers. But it’s Chambers’s sharp and gutsy student, Rebecca Montana, who proves the most compelling of the bunch.

“The Cross River Saga continues,” Scott promises in the book’s acknowledgments, to which I say: More Rebecca, please! More, too, of the robot slave we meet first in the brief sci-fi tale, “The Electric Joy of Service,” and later in “Mercury in Retrograde.” Like some others in these stories, his inventor demands to be called Master.

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“If the Master had been a whole person, capable of giving and receiving love, he never would have sought to create me,” the robot explains, and this is true. The Master designed him “to look like the grossest blackface caricature to mock his own heritage.”

Also slinking through these pages are the brindled cat, Osiris, and his musician pal, the Kid, who alight at one of the former plantations in “The Temple of Practical Arts,” before the Kid gets famous. Even then, a bandleader called Slim, who’s poisoning his own music with his anger, views the Kid as a threat.

In a later story, “Slim in Hell,” a bar owner philosophizes: “True artists, even when they going through the darkness, try to, you know, lift up the human spirit.”

For all the soul damage among the people of Cross River, that’s what Scott is up to here.

In “Rolling in My Six-Fo’,” James-my-man tells Rick a story of racist violence that’s horrific if, as advertised, it’s historical fact. It has the resonance of truth, yet it’s laced with such outlandish details that Rick finally cannot reconcile them with the real world.

“You expect me to believe this?” he protests. “You must think I’m a fool.”

“It’s true,” James-my-man says. “Every word of it. Even the parts I made up.” And then, adds this fictional man, dreamt into being by an author whose vibrant imaginings have a skewed but insistent veracity: “Especially the parts I made up.”

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Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.