“A pinball machine zinging with sharp dialogue, breathtaking plot twists and naughty humor... McBride at his brave and joyous best.” —New York Times Book Review
Exciting new fiction from James McBride, the first since his National Book Award–winning novel The Good Lord Bird.
The stories in Five-Carat Soul—none of them ever published before—spring from the place where identity, humanity, and history converge. They’re funny and poignant, insightful and unpredictable, imaginative and authentic—all told with McBride’s unrivaled storytelling skill and meticulous eye for character and detail. McBride explores the ways we learn from the world and the people around us. An antiques dealer discovers that a legendary toy commissioned by Civil War General Robert E. Lee now sits in the home of a black minister in Queens. Five strangers find themselves thrown together and face unexpected judgment. An American president draws inspiration from a conversation he overhears in a stable. And members of The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band recount stories from their own messy and hilarious lives.
As McBride did in his National Book award-winning The Good Lord Bird and his bestselling The Color of Water, he writes with humor and insight about how we struggle to understand who we are in a world we don’t fully comprehend. The result is a surprising, perceptive, and evocative collection of stories that is also a moving exploration of our human condition.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Hometown:Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Date of Birth:1957
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:Oberlin Conservatory of Music; M.A., Columbia University School of Journalism
Read an Excerpt
We was rehearsing over Mr. Woo’s Grocery and Chinese Take-Out one day when the following happened:
We hear gunshots.
First we stop playing and hit the floor because in The Bottom you don’t know who the good guy is. Then we hear Mr. Woo shouting downstairs and we run down and see him standing over Buck Boy Robinson.
Buck Boy be about seventeen years old, I guess. Don’t matter now ’cause he laying on the floor dead as a doornail. Blood is everyplace. Buck Boy, dead as he was, still got a knife in one hand and a fistful of dollar bills in the other. His hand was clutching that money tight, like he never want to let it go.
Mr. Woo is a little old man who wear a yellow straw hat. Whether he’s Chinese or Korean I don’t know, but he let my band rehearse upstairs over his store for free. He holding a gun. He drop it like it’s a firecracker and walk around in a little circle, ringing his hands and talking in Chinese or whatever. I couldn’t understand a word.
Two cops come quick, chase everybody out the store, close it down and take the gun from the floor. They leave us inside because we are witnesses. The cop ask Mr. Woo what happened.
“He try to rob me,” Mr. Woo say. He don’t look too hot. His face is pale and he look like somebody punched him in the stomach. The cops have a heck of a time prying that money out of Buck Boy’s hand. Finally they get it out and hand it to Mr. Woo, but the Chinese shake his head.
“Just get him out,” he say. He don’t look at Buck Boy when he talk.
By this time the whole neighborhood show up, including Buck Boy’s sister Victoria, who be shouting and screaming outside Mr. Woo’s store. The cops ask us questions but we really didn’t see nothing, so the cops call the black van to come get Buck Boy. The van take its time to get there, but Buck Boy, he ain’t in no hurry now. So we sit there a half hour: me, Dex, Goat, Bunny, Dirt, the cops, Mr. Woo, and Buck Boy. I seen that Buck Boy was wearing a brand-new pair of white and purple sneakers.
Nobody around here liked Buck Boy too much. He always be looking for trouble and he always be strung out on something what they call PCP or whatever that makes you lose your mind. Drugs was his main line, but he’d steal anything. Steal a purse, steal the chrome off a car, steal a whole car. The worst he did was he stole our whole school bus two years ago when we was on it. He crashed it into a light pole on the Boulevard and bang us up pretty bad and run off. I don’t think he went to jail for it.
So nobody cry too much when they carry Buck Boy from Mr. Woo’s Grocery except for his sister Victoria. It’s kind of sad, because his mother never pay him no mind from when he was a little boy, and I heard people say she is strung out on drugs herself. That whole Robinson family is bad news.
No sooner do they load Buck Boy into the van than television trucks come flying up. They come all the way from Morgantown, West Va., twenty-eight miles across the state line, even though we is Uniontown, Pa., a whole different state. The news don’t care. News is news. And The Bottom is always good news for the news. ’Cause we mostly bad news. The reporters jump out and bust through the crowd like cops. Right behind them come Rev. Jenkins. He is the preacher of my church, Bright Hope Baptist. I read a story in the newspaper once that say ever since the 1980s, Rev. Jenkins has been the “community leader” of The Bottom. I don’t know what that is, but it do seem like whenever there’s a fresh-cooked chicken or a television camera around, Rev. Jenkins don’t be far off. When people talk about how much they hate Rev. Jenkins, my ma says, “I don’t hate his guts. He’s full of my food.”
Rev. Jenkins cover a lot of ground just standing in one place. He’s a big, fat man. I seen him undress at the pool one time, and it took me five minutes to see all of him. He got a slicked-back hairdo and he wearing one of his fine suits. He sports some of the most killing suits you ever seen. He’s going with the pink pinstripe suit today, and when he bust through the crowd, people bounced off him like he was a beach ball. He hit the door of Mr. Woo’s the same time the newsmen do, but Mr. Woo had locked it and pulled the shades down.
“Oh hell,” Rev. Jenkins say. Then he starts talking loud about Buck Boy being shot to death, poor ol’ Buck Boy, and it was a shame he was so young, and that he was tired of the foreigners always coming to The Bottom and starting up stores and treating the blacks like they’re nobody after black folks spend all their money on them. And after a while he make it sound like Mr. Woo come all the way over from China or wherever just to shoot Buck Boy.
The newsmen kind of swill around and try to peek inside Mr. Woo’s store. Then Rev. Jenkins say, “We’re gonna do something about this. We need an investigation.”
When he say that, the newsmen whip their heads up like a hunting dog who sniff a fox in the wind. They pull out their cameras and notebooks and turn on their tape gizmos and rush him.
“What kind of investigation?” one newsman ask. He got silver hair whipped up so much it look like cotton candy.
“A big investigation,” Rev. Jenkins say. “Why, there shouldn’t be no bigger investigation than this one. There should be a granddaddy investigation.”
“You mean a grand jury investigation,” one newsman say.
“Don’t put words in my mouth!” Rev say. But then he is quiet a minute, and you can almost hear the machines in his mind clicking and spinning back and forth. He preach a fine sermon, but when he teach Sunday school I could read better than him and I’m only twelve. “You’re right,” he say. “We want the grandest jury investigation for all of it.”
The reporters look at him and a couple of them laugh. That get Rev hot. He swell up inside his suit and it seem like the grease from his hair start to melt and spread and cover his face. “I’m saying that boy is a victim,” he said. “That Korean had a gun. If that boy was white, would he be dead today? Would that Korean have shot him? Maybe he just went to get something to eat. Maybe the cops planted a weapon on him. Only God knows,” he say, and he pull out a handkerchief to wipe his face, “because the cops ain’t tellin’. But the truth is we tired of our children being gunned down like animals. We’re tirrrrreed! We’re gonna march!”
Rev. Jenkins can’t read too good, but he sure got a way with words. This crowd getting warm now. “Yeahhh!” they say. “Let’s march!”
“Is the march tomorrow?” a newslady holler out. She’s a blond lady. I seen her on TV before. She look so good on television you want to kiss her, but in person she got so much powder on her face she look like a dustbag from a vacuum cleaner. On TV she looks young, but in person she look like she was born in the year of only God know. If she was two-faced, I think she could’ve used the other one. I was just so shocked to see her that way, but my friends Goat and Bunny was in love and can’t take they eyes off her.
“There is no tomorrow for my people,” the Rev say. “We will start right now. We will boycott this store. We will stand out here every single day and march and starve to death before we buy goods from a murderer. These foreigners treat us like second-class citizens. They shoot our children. They get minority loans from the government. We’re sick of it. We ain’t takin’ NO MORE! We are FED UP! WE’RE GONNA MARCH!”
Now the crowd is fired up and newsmen are filming the whole thing. Everybody in this crowd I just about know, and they all know Mr. Woo ain’t like the people from Sun Yung Restaurant three blocks down who put bulletproof glass over their counter and take your money and make sure not to touch your hand before they pass out the food to you and treat people from The Bottom like they ain’t nobody, but everybody’s laughing and watching Rev. Jenkins. He fun to watch when he get his wheels spinnin’. He really hot now.
“Ahhhh-haaaaa!” Rev. Jenkins say, “Ahhhhh hah! Tired! Lawd . . . a boy is dead . . . ,” and he wipe his face with his handkerchief and start stuttering like he in church. “I knew this boy for years. He should have had a long life! What else did he have? He had no dreams! He had no hope! He had no aspirations! Ahh, but life! He had life! That’s the one thing they couldn’t take away from him, and now look. They took that away! Awwwwww! We are tired. We ain’t takin’ it!!”
“Yess!” say the crowd.
Rev. Jenkins point to Mr. Woo’s store behind him. “We will march here tomorrow at this same time to see that this boy gets justice and this man gets driven outta here. And until he leaves we ain’t quitting. We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome! We SHALL-NOT-BE-MOVED!” and he shout them last words so loud one newsman with headphones yank them off.
The funny part is, if Buck Boy Robinson saw Rev. Jenkins in his fine pink suit walking down the Boulevard at night, he’d rob him down to his socks no problem. And Buck Boy would never protest for Rev. Jenkins if Rev. Jenkins was shot for holding up a store.
The next day The Bottom was jumping. Everybody and their brother show up. A bunch of white people come from town and from all the big towns around show up wearing T-shirts that say carao, which means Coalition Against Racism and something. The Guardian Angels like the kind they got in New York City come all the way from Pittsburgh, and more newsmen than I ever seen before. Fat newsmen. Old newsmen. Black newsmen. I even seen newsmen from China or Japan and look like Mr. Woo. They go all over the neighborhood asking about Buck Boy and Mr. Woo, except they don’t call him Buck Boy no more. They call him Regis. I never knowed his real name was Regis.
Rev. Jenkins get a bunch of people walking around in a circle in front of Mr. Woo’s store, but Mr. Woo was still closed. They marched anyway, singing “We Shall Overcome,” and the TV cameras filmed it, but it wasn’t too exciting. I didn’t hardly know none of them protesters except Victoria Robinson and Rev. Jenkins. My whole band was there. The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band. Every member, even some of the old ones we threw out like Pig who don’t never rehearse and Adam who they call Dirt who always smells funny. It was them two plus Bunny, Dex, Dex’s brother Ray-Ray, Beanie, and Goat. We was in a fix. Our drums and guitars and Pig’s saxophone was locked over Mr. Woo’s store, ’cause he was holed up someplace tight and outta sight. We wanted our gear, but nobody was listening to us. They was busy selling beer and hot dogs to all them new people, the Guardian Angels and the carao T-shirt people and the white people from Morgantown and Pittsburgh and a few black folks I never seen before, not people from The Bottom. Not too many people from The Bottom who knew Buck Boy would march for him.
It wasn’t more than forty people out there, but that night I see it on television and it looked like a real protest, with Rev. Jenkins out there leading hundreds of people, chanting and shouting and singing “We Shall Overcome” with Rev. Jenkins out front hollering and screaming. My mother watched it too and she laugh and say, “Hillary is a fool.” Hillary is Rev. Jenkins’s real name. My mother went to high school with him.
Next day The Bottom fill up with even more newsmen and protesters, and it’s so many people swilling around on the Boulevard with new signs and more songs they stop traffic. They talking about burying Buck Boy soon, and the television people interview Buck Boy’s mother who say she don’t have no money to bury him. Next thing you know all sorts of money coming in. My sister Sissie knows Buck Boy’s sister Victoria and Victoria told her that so much money come over the Robinsons’ house that Mrs. Robinson needed three shoeboxes to put it in. She say one rich black man from Pittsburgh brung $1,200 cash to the house. Victoria said her mother bought a brand-new refrigerator plus a giant TV set and some new couches.
Buck Boy died on a Saturday. By Thursday The Bottom was still so full of newsmen knocking on doors that folks was running from them, so the newsmen started interviewing each other. Rev. Jenkins got his friend preachers to bring their churches from places out of town to keep the protest going, and more white folks like college students from Morgantown, West Va., showed up, yelling, “We’re not taking it anymore!” They seem like nice people. I sure hope they leave The Bottom before dark.
They don’t get around to burying Buck Boy till the following Monday because they was fussing over a place big enough for the service. First they planned to have it at the Gilbert Funeral Home on the Boulevard, but it only fits about seventy people. Then they move it to Mr. Wallace’s funeral home on Simmons Avenue, but that got Rev. Jenkins upset. He say why not take it to his church, which holds four hundred people? They fuss about it and fuss about it even on TV and it make me a little sick. They fightin’ over who can bury Buck Boy Robinson of all people. Nobody did nothing when Leonard Evans got shot in the back on Washington Avenue by that white cop for nothing, or Stella Brooks got raped by her father and he got away with it. But Buck Boy, who robbed a school bus and tried to rob Mr. Woo, he’s a hero now.