paulA neves's Reviews > A Visitation of Spirits

A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan
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's review
Mar 22, 2011

it was ok
Read in March, 2011

It is always an accomplishment when a writer completes a novel, never mind publishes one. Anyone who does the former gets immediate points, but doing the latter doesn’t mean it’s a great novel or even a very good one. Randall Kenan’s first novel, 1989’s A Visitation of Spirits, is neither great nor very good, but it is a notable entry in post- Alice Walker and Toni Morrison African American, particularly Gen X African American, fiction. Kenan could very well find his niche somewhere between these giants and younger writers like Colson Whitehead. Time will tell.

Spirits, at its simplest, recounts the story of two branches of the Cross family, the oldest, most well-respected and prominent African American family in the tobacco-farming area in and around Tim’s Creek, North Carolina. The family’s (many) trials and (meager) triumphs are told though the experiences of two protagonists, cousins Horace Cross and James (Jimmy) Malachai Greene, and two subsidiary but important characters, brother and sister-in law Zeke and Ruth Cross, who are, respectively, Horace’s grandfather and aunt, and Jimmy’s great uncle and aunt. If this basic lineage sounds a bit confusing, just wait: That’s just the main characters. These four characters then figure in a plot that intersperses their experiences over the course of a day, but not the same day. Horace’s story unfolds in one 24 hour period in the past and Jimmy, Zeke’s and Ruth’s over another in the present. Within these two different days, each character’s present and past and the family’s overall history unspools. Still with me? Ok, well then these past/present intercuts occur within five sections whose titles attest to the stain of slavery and both the saving and suppressing role of spirituality in this African American family: White Sorcery; Black Necromancy; Holy Science; Old Demonology; and Old Gods, New Demons. Within these five sections are various chapters focusing either on Horace or Jimmy, Ruth and Zeke.

Although Kenan plots with Dickensian zeal—and borrows from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol to tell Horace’s story, the structure is elaborate and distracting. The narrative’s heart is strained by the competing demands of too many characters, none of whom, except Horace, is realized enough for readers to understand why they should care about the family’s unraveling. Too bad because Kenan has some beautiful intentions here: To depict a family’s rise and fall through its own pride and prejudices, the key to its self-preservation and self-combustion a religiosity whose dualities are embodied in 16-year-old Horace’s struggles with his homosexuality. Indeed, Kenan best hits his stride with Horace, a scholar-athlete who represents the Crosses’ next great hope. Unfortunately, Horace is young, black, gay and gifted in a black Southern Baptist family, in a mid-1980’s rural, bigoted North Carolinian community decades removed, if not in actual chronology then attitude, from Stonewall. His resources, outside his own imagination, are few; this is unfortunate because his (literal) salvation could have been the family’s. Unfortunately, Kenan only hints at this.

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