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October 05, 2008|George Ducker

Holding Pattern

Stories

Jeffery Renard Allen

Graywolf: 230 pp., $15 paper

THE FINAL story in Jeffery Renard Allen's new collection, "Holding Pattern," begins with a shower of pennies falling from the sky. The image is arresting; the penny rain "ringing against parked cars, breaking windshields and windows, bouncing off concrete, rolling into sewers, spinning like plates." Like any good dream, explanations are not forthcoming as amazed onlookers begin filling their pockets with coins, clawing them from the air, even opening their mouths until they can't stomach any more weight. Disbelief, clearly, is for amateurs.

But a book isn't read backward. The eye moves naturally from left to right and the words form a pattern, page after page. Likewise, the characters in Allen's 10 stories fight their way uphill in a bullish, often haphazard fashion, contending with all manner of obstacles, both familial and fantastical. In "The Green Apocalypse," a woman watches as the neighborhood thug who taunts her younger brother grows into a magnetic force of violence. Lee Christmas, the wealthy property owner of "Shimmy," sits in his parked BMW, remembering how he caught his first wife with the ghost of her dead boyfriend between her legs. In a downtown detention center, the ruggedly upbeat narrator of "Holding Pattern's" title story encounters an inmate with a miraculous yet pointedly useless power.

Allen writes like the poet he is -- he is the author of two collections, 1999's "Harbors and Spirits" and last year's "Stellar Places," along with the novel "Rails Under My Back" -- by working in metaphors and repetition. He paints a rotating tableau of black Americans at every rung of the economic ladder, moving them like chess pieces across backwoods towns, suburbs and urban landscapes that recall both New York and Chicago. They do not cry; water cascades from their eyes. A speeding car appears terrifyingly as a "cube of light"; later, one descends a hill like "a fly down a distended belly." Characters' names mock the cliches of race. Chitlin Sandwich drags a rusted sword across the street as the neighbors look on. Lincoln Roosevelt Lincoln, the pseudonymous author of a series of war novels, is the son of a man named Jesus. The name Hatch appears in nearly every story -- at different ages and locales -- but we should not, Allen warns in the book's disclaimer, assume he is the same character.

"Holding Pattern" is not an easy read. These are tales that blur the lines between the tough emotional interiors of noir and the free-flowing obliqueness of a writer like Samuel Beckett. The dialogue is terse, unforgiving and reluctant to overly explain anything. The eye must pause and go back. But maybe that's exactly the point. Allen lets nothing get away easily, and, indeed, his stories show new value upon repeated readings. This year, the U.S. Mint will spend 1.4 cents to manufacture each penny. The irony can't be lost on Allen, whose story collection recognizes the difficult, often comical effort it takes to produce the most common of currency.

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George Ducker is a writer in Los Angeles.

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