Book Review: Three Days Before The Shooting…

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by Ralph Ellison

Publication Date:
List Price: $50.00
Format: Hardcover, 1136 pages
Classification: Fiction
ISBN13: 9780375759536
Imprint: Modern Library
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Parent Company: Bertelsmann
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Read a Description of Three Days Before The Shooting…

Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming

When legendary African American writer Ralph Ellison died in 1994, everyone who loves good books mourned at his passing and wondered if his follow-up novel would be published posthumously. His admirers had been waiting for so long since his 1952 literary classic, Invisible Man. Many gave up hope of its release when news reached the public of a fire at Ellison's summer home in the Berkshires, which destroyed a large portion of the novel.

Following a much-publicized controversy over the heavily edited second novel, Juneteenth in 1999, Ellison's fans and critics demanded to see the Master's intended text, not "a patchwork" reconstructed by John F. Callahan, a professor of humanities at Lewis & Clark College. Now, a reasonably complete manuscript, pieced together by Callahan and Adam Bradley, an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

This latest Ellison product, Three Days Before The Shooting, runs over 1,100 pages, and is full of the kind of narrative alchemy expected by the man who was lionized by the literary world. Some say anything with the Ellison brand will sell, but this is not the resurrected hatchet job performed by some hack scholars.

The plot is typical Ellison, with Alonzo Hickman, the older jazzman-preacher, and the bigoted U.S. Senator Adam Sunraider, formerly known as "Bliss," a white skinned boy raised as a Negro. Hickman tries to save the senator from himself and Severen, a manic youth abandoned by the politician, who wants to kill the hatemonger. Ellison attempts to show race is so embedded into the fabric of America that no one escapes its grasp. The story often surges along, only to stop and go off into unexpected places.

It's not just the length of the book but the density and complexity of the narrative which frequently surprises us:

"So there you go, Hickman, he thought, just when you were thinking that everything you saw was quiet and peaceful you're reminded that while human life is ever-changing the earth keeps to its same old patterns...Progress brings in style and machinery, but the worldly trinity of earth-sea-and-air are ever the same. So, while life goes on being a process of permanence in change, human endurance is - and has always been - an endless matter of dealing with life's unexpectedness."

In this titanic work in progress, Ellison shocks and dazzles the reader with a hybrid of styles: a little jukejoint blues, a smidgeon of gospel wailing, a flavor of high-note jazz, a dash of magic and fantasy, mixed with a nod to the influences of Joyce James, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Kafka, and Malraux. He wanted it to be a quality work. He wanted it to be good.

It would be unfair to compare the characters of Invisible Man's Dr. Bledsoe and Ras the Destroyer to this book's Hickman and Sunraider. However, this book, regardless of how it comes to us, must be read, for this literary journey will never be repeated again. Never, ever. That makes it special.

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