“Slicker City,” Yale Review of Books, Spring 2005
Picador, 192 pp., $12
Touré’s Soul City provides a blissfully idiosyncratic, magically drawn portrait of a Black American utopia. Soul City is a place of dubious geography, somewhere in America, sometime in its history. It is an ambitious rendering of an urban center that draws its history and its identity directly out of the black American experience both recent and ancient.
Only black people live in Soul City. And it is a perfect place. No crime, happy families, good sex. Giant flowers punch their way through the sidewalks at three times the normal size, playing old Blues music from inside their petals. Contained within itself, Soul City is untouched by the often turbulent racial politics of real America. Here, ethnic clashes, black, white, or other evaporate in a city dreamed as the last (or first) bastion of independent black life and culture.
Touré—one name—is a writer and contributor to dozens of publications you have heard of, and many you have not. He works the hip hop beat at Rolling Stone and hosts a show on MTV. Musical and cultural anthropology beams proudly through the narrative as a consequence. At the bookstore, the reader may certainly have to leap from the beaten path and venture into the section reserved for “African-American Literature.” This is a strange detour, with perhaps a distinct message on writing and audience in contemporary literature, but the classification should serve neither as a separator nor as a deterrent. Touré’s novel is an American one, rooted in the history and social development of blacks in America but carrying a message for all.
Touré has dared to imagine a world nearly in caricature, with essentials within the black American experience condensed and painted onto a fantastical landscape. This utopian template elevates the people of Soul City to a plane of allegory, one with quite a lot to say about black identity and culture in a modern world.
Soul City’s minutes are ninety seconds long, its pace easy and untouched by the ankle weights of the world outside city limits. Here, the story of Shiftless Rice, a mingling of Jesus, St. George, and a fallen Angel at once, emerges from a sermon given by the Revren Li’l Mo Love at Baby Love, the city’s church and spiritual center. Shiftless, the legend and hero of Soul City’s Bible, has been to Hell, Heaven and back, stolen the Devil’s daughter and, after a long career of messianic activity, has, naturally, chosen to settle down in Soul City. The founders of the town, descendants of a flying tribe from Africa, have maintained their lineage by marrying only other flyers, a plot point that grows in significance as the tale unfurls. Granmama, the 366-year-old matriarch of Soul City, the Biggest Mama in its cabal of Big Mamas, runs the city’s Biscuit Shop on love and butter stolen from Heaven. Just a daub will do to make the biscuits “so light and flaky if there’s anything left to swallow after ya finished chewing…YOUR NEXT BISCUIT’S FREE!”
These sketches of Soul City’s inhabitants borrow bits and pieces from what Vladimir Nabokov terms “the circulating library of public truths.” In his 1950 essay “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov discusses the world at an author’s disposal. “The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says ‘go!’ allowing the world to flicker and to fuse.”
Touré’s response to this literary call to action is the stuff of Soul City. He materializes a world that incorporates the rudiments of human memory and experience into broad sketches of memorable personalities. A child’s tender expectation that his grandmother will live forever creates, in Soul City, a woman who actually does live forever–or perhaps not. The neighborhood gossip from neighborhoods the world over becomes Ubiquity Jones, a nonstop one-woman rumor mill. Similar samplings of known culture allow Soul City to “flicker and to fuse” at Touré’s behest, whose composite impressions become the larger than life world of the novel.
While 24-hour hair salons and the “Bring The Noise Movie Theater” (shouting at the screen encouraged) may be criticized as overblown ethnic caricatures, Touré’s treatment of Soul City at large creates an exaggerated reality that permits, perhaps insists upon, a suspension of such indignant responses. Between the humorously intended jabs at black stereotypes vibrates a pride and autonomously generated self-esteem that is unmistakable. The prevailing conceit in Soul City is that its people literally fly above the fray, in a place where black identity is uncolored by the legacy of racial tension in America. The city has holidays and history, and unashamed pride.
One of the most creative and compelling motifs in the novel is that of the personalized automobile. These cars have full-out, bass thumping sound systems that play music from one artist alone. The music is at the buyer’s discretion, from the JayZmobile, the Jamesbrownmobile, the Gayemobile, to that original “Loco Motive,” the Steviewondermobile. Soul City fixture Huggy Bear Jackson invented the technology, and makes sure that the cars take the form of the musician whose music blasts from within, as well as a personality that fits the driver.
Mahogany Sunflower is independent and bitchy, a female with the flying gene, Jimmy Choos and a mean neck roll. As the female center of the novel, she slowly reveals dimensions and vulnerabilities. She drives a “silver 1940 Mercedes convertible coupe with a white-rimmed fingertip-wide steering wheel and white leather seats.” Mahogany’s ride is immaculate, sleek and elegantly feminine, save one corner bashed in “like a hideous mouth.” Her car, of course, is a slightly broken, always plaintive, Billiemobile.
Do black people play their music too loud? Some think so. Is this where the idea arises? Probably. But here, Touré makes music in the ride “a sonic temple, a rolling emblem of you.” He subverts the stereotype with potentially nasty undertones in order to project a tender appreciation for good music and those, black or otherwise, that feel no shame at blasting it at the stoplight.
While the precision of Touré’s cultural references may glance off those unfamiliar with distinctive black American attitudes or behaviors, the careful reader will learn the social meaning of “good” and “bad” hair, the importance of the neckroll, the hat tilt, and the pimp swagger, as well as the mysterious childrearing power of a device known only as “A Switch From the Tree in the Backyard.”
Here, the casual marriage brewing between the hip-hop and urban culture associated with blacks and the mainstream of fashion, music, entertainment now meets literature as well. One hopes that “African-American Literature” is intended to refer to its content, and not its presumed audience. If people read this–and they should–a remarkable social education may follow. A legacy of hybridity within literature exists, and the lengthy list of radically diverse influences that color Touré’s acknowledgements page is a solid indication of the new direction his writing takes.
The well-explored form of magical realism here receives an edgy and modern treatment. The utopia derives its propelling force from pointedly observed social realities in the black community and in America at large. Soul City incorporates heroes of black America—Jesus is as likely a god as Richard Pryor, Biggie Smalls, or Charlie Parker—and reinforces their mythic status. Among these well-known figures Touré distributes his own: Fulcrum Negro, who eats air, Death, and the Shit-Talking Clown.
As a direct nod to Nabokov, downtown Soul City houses a fugitive Humbert Humbert. He has opened a joint called Lolita, where a surly Holden Caulfield will seat you and Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney will take your order, while Dolores Haze flits four-foot-ten from table to table and Bigger Thomas scares the hell out of everyone from a booth in the corner. These literary cameos express the intent of Soul City as a place and as a text: fact and fiction, social reality and social possibility collide in an imagined city where characters can dialogue with the legends of literary history.
Touré’s judgment of his own creation is nuanced. His narrative double, Cadillac Jackson, is a reporter struggling to write a book about Soul City. His sojourn into the city from The City, stand-in for the real world beyond Soul City’s limits, brings him into contact with the colorful mix of personalities. Cadillac is the reader’s eyes and ears as he penetrates the untouched realities of Soul City. He is an observer battling to remain an objective one as his relationship with the city becomes deeper and more tangled than initially expected. His outsider status facilitates the long, hard look Touré asks the reader to give Soul City.
The arguable topic sentence of the novel arrives as Cadillac tries again, unsuccessfully, to start the first words of what may become his book. “It was much harder to find the courage to be honest about both the beauty and the ugliness of Soul City.” The utopia is not immortal. Soul City is a tale in which the fierce pride and uncorrupted beauty of the place meets dark, serious responses to race and identity. The allegorical undercurrent proves the means through which Touré runs a discourse on intermarriage, reparations for slavery, faith, self-hatred, police brutality, and social politics within and without the black community.
The tone of the book appears skittish and uncertain at the outset. It sometimes reads as a picaresque work, a collection of tales rather than a cohesive novel. The writing has trouble accumulating enough momentum to bear an initially nebulous plotline. As the novel progresses, however, Touré manages to resolve plot devices introduced in these narrative asides and engages most of them directly in the advancement of the story. However distracting, what recommends the numerous episodes is their rendering of Soul City’s history. The sense of place and identity thickens, as a body of anecdotal information gives new dimensions to the present.
In Soul City, a feeling of short-story-ness persists. In 2004, Touré published The Portable Promised Land, a collection of short stories that deal with similar themes in the black American experience, and many of the same characters as in Soul City. Promised Land has a distinct edge to it, traces of noir slithering within the content. One of the best stories in the collection, titled “Sambomorphosis,” proves a brilliant riff on Kafka’s poor Gregor Samsa. A quiet, neat, well behaved and slightly bourgeois black child wakes as a grinning, nappy-haired, watermelon-seed-spitting minstrel, who emanates tinkling banjo music at close proximities. To the well-mannered and socially conscious parents of the boy, this blackfaced, utterly offensive replacement for their son is worse than a cockroach.
The wit that characterized the earlier collection is maintained here. Soul City offers something daring and fresh, and illustrates real thought as it navigates touchy territory. This is a difficult book to write. The book avoids tiptoeing through and around the highly sensitized social criticisms and observations within it. Rather, it runs, or in its own parlance, flies, stomps, and dances with its themes. The courage Cadillac Jackson and Touré himself both seek—that ability to write about culture intimately, critically, tenderly—is one and the same. The voice projected in this novel is still a growing one, but the thoughts behind the words deserve high praise.