‘Song of the Shank’ is a novel of musical, racial exploitation

Song of the Shank, by Jeffrey Renard Allen (584 pages; Graywolf; $18)
Song of the Shank, by Jeffrey Renard Allen (584 pages; Graywolf; $18)

Tom Wiggins is born into slavery in 1849, blind and probably autistic. By the time he is a toddler, he is obsessed with sounds, imitating birds and rain, and making noise, the louder the better, but barely able to communicate with words.

Bought, along with his family, by the secessionist newspaper publisher Gen. James Bethune, Tom is raised beside his mother, who works in the general’s house.

There, for the first time, he hears the sound of a piano. Immediately, he is able to produce whatever is played, to the astonishment of the Bethunes. The general recognizes in Tom an unusual financial opportunity: By the time Tom is 6, he is performing in public, billed as a musical prodigy and earning a fortune for the general.

Jeffrey Renard Allen, whose previous books include the novel “Rails Under My Back” and a story collection, “Holding Pattern,” takes the historical Tom as the central character in his sprawling, Faulknerian work of fiction.

When we first meet Tom he is 15, living in a city apartment with Eliza Bethune, the general’s widowed daughter-in-law, whose husband had been Tom’s manager. One day, Tom and Eliza have a visitor, Tabbs Gross, who informs them that he has come to return Tom to his mother, who, he says, is living in Edgemere, a community populated by Africans and former slaves.

Eliza, who believed Tom’s mother was dead, is shocked. Tabbs’ visit is the prelude to Allen’s long, sometimes rambling, tale of greed, power and exploitation — not only of the slave Tom but of the several men who hope to make their fortunes as Tom’s manager and find themselves cheated by the wily general. Tabbs refuses to be outwitted.

Talented as Tom is, for the Bethunes, he is nothing more than property. Mary Bethune, the general’s wife, “concludes that Tom is fully of a piece with his race. Shut eyes and bulging forehead, he lacks the needed spirit,” she maintains, to be a musical genius. “Art is expression, and for lowly forms expression is an impossible act.” As idiot and black, “Tom is doubly short of self.”

As the general tells Perry Oliver, an early manager, “Though we’ve been hard at training him, Tom is only a few degrees from the animal.” Perry, however, is convinced that the general’s prejudices thwart Tom’s development; he decides to hire a music teacher to hone Tom’s skills.

Perry and Seven, the bright, perceptive child who serves as his assistant, servant and Tom’s companion, succeed amazingly, even arranging for a performance at the White House.

“Music broke out on Blind Tom like the smallpox,” one journalist exclaimed.

Under Perry, Tom rises to his zenith.

“Blind Tom is a sun setting everything in the world ablaze, radiating excellent reviews, parades in his honor (the clamour, the sureness of gesture and step, the rousing speeches, the swells of fellow feeling), delighted and devoted concertgoers, invitations and entreaties from worthy personages and distinguished delegations who seek a private audience with this singular phenomenon of Nature. ...”

Tom’s success, though, portends downfall for Perry, and later for Tabbs.

The general, foreseeing defeat in the Civil War, sees Tom as financial insurance. “The South will fall,” he tells Perry, “no two ways about it. As a military man I can tell you that there is no chance for us to win this war. So what I am supposed to do: lose everything?”

In Allen’s rendering of the South’s tumultuous history, Tom is mired in a political and social maelstrom; although blind to his own identity as a black man, he is well aware of what race means.

“While he sees himself as a fine instrument,” he tells Seven, he also “is a thing of no consequence.”