"I was the only nigger in the room," starts "Project Blackface," second chapter, first book (Screwball Comedy).
Openings like this crash-land with the unmistakable sound of a dropped 40 bottle on a tile floor. Like:
"When I found out that appleseeds were poisonous and had arsenic in them, I knew my brother wouldn't hurt me anymore," begins "The Appleseed Girl," second story, second book (Stories Going Steady); or "I was paid $2000 to let fifty men fuck me," blurts "Counting Men," the seventh in Stories.
The conclusions of these tales contain even less cushion. Screwball Comedy is a novel told in six stories about Rayla Sunday, a pinball bouncing around in the New York City career machine, aspiring to be the "Black Annie Leibowitz. The female Scavullo." Stories Going Steady is a collection of 11 short stories, all of them about "people trying to connect with each other," says its author, boice-Terrel Allen. The two books by Allen come as one package, inspired, he says, by favorite double albums such as Sign o' the Times and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
The longtime Clairton resident's stories are relaxed, khaki and townsy -- most of them set in a fictional place called Bernarding, not to be confused with Wilmerding. Bernading is described in "A Posthumous Introduction," from Stories, as a "little community" and a "small town" with 11 bookstores. In Screwball, it's "a tumbleweed suburb outside of Pittsburgh," where Rayla Sunday retreats from the louder, bustling, neon New York.
While Allen spent most of his 36 years in Clairton, where ol' steel mills are still stumped throughout the city, he also lived in New York City while in grad school. He was born in the congested Baltimore metro area and along the way has collected experiences that find their way into his "double-book under one cover."
"Sports," from Stories, is a coming-of-age tale about 10-year-old Daniel, who's sent from Bernarding to meet his father for the first time in Detroit. The story vividly illustrates, nerve-for-nerve, all the anxieties of a big boy leaving a small town to meet someone he's seen only in pictures, but who is the most important person in his young life. There's no cushiony ending to this story, either. The book's dedication reads, "For my father, ... and our promising new beginning," and Allen, in an interview, confirms "Sports" is autobiographical.
"We've always had an on-and-off relationship," says Allen about his father, who does live in Detroit.
When the father sends Daniel away, back to his mother, the confused boy thinks "I wondered if I would ever see him again. ... Who would ever teach me how to play sports?"
The father teaching the son how to throw and catch a football is the way a man is supposed to instruct his young man-in-training. But Allen says he grew up in a house full of women, and talking to him you sense that for many of those years the relationship with his father was off.
These child-to-father and man-to-man love tensions, both familial and sexual, play out in much of Stories: "The Murder Ballad of My Father" tells of a son who comes home to find his father's dead body wrapped in lace, assumed killed at the hands of his male lover; "eventually" is about a man in an ol'-folks home whose intimate emotions are rekindled by a gay wheelchair-bound senior with a resentful son; while, finally, "A Man of a Certain Age" gives us a man whose saving grace is reluctantly outing himself to dispel allegations of sexually molesting a 10th-grade girl -- a girl who is being sexually molested by her father.
These are Allen's darker stories, quarantined from the more sitcommy Screwball -- which, however, remains infected by twilight. Screwball is exactly the "upbeat" side of the coin until Rayla falls in love with a man who is HIV-positive. Rayla is irresponsible, immature, without job security, self-absorbed, too liberal a consumer, and all of the things that'll have you on the wrong side of the couch with Oprah. And it's precisely her narci-sistah-cism that causes her to lose her lover to get the job she wants.
This less-than-happy ending is delightful, though, because of its due critique of Me-ism -- that vanity can't hold its own in the ring with conditions the human self can't resolve. Pretty much every story in both books has scenes of characters with crushes, infatuations and obsessions, with trimmings of sexual fantasy, and sexual violence. Race isn't forgotten but is an innocent bystander mostly in the books, in a way that suggests the race card in urban literature is perhaps maxed out, in view of larger issues, such as AIDS.