Spiritual Links and Colorful Language in ‘If I Had Two Wings’

When Randall Kenan died in August 2020 at the age of 57, his latest story collection If I Had Two Wings had just been published. Less than a month later, the book would be named to the National Book Award Longlist for Fiction. It is a stunning collection, and to read it now is to recognize the enormity of the literary world’s loss. And yet, we should be thankful that Kenan has left behind an outstanding and important body of work.

The new book returns to the landscape Kenan explored in earlier efforts, the novel A Visitation of Spirits and a story collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Here we meet more of the inhabitants of Tims Creek, North Carolina, and neighboring Crosstown, although we also get a glimpse of their lives in the larger world.

The book’s fascinating opening story, “When We All Get to Heaven,” sees plumber Ed Phelps of Tims Creek taking an ebullient stroll through New York City, reveling in the big city’s sights and sounds. He splurges on a pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli. He admires the fast pace of the people on the sidewalk as he walks up 7th Avenue, and his spirits are high: “Ed was feeling good. He was stepping. He was happy and dandy and fine.” He’s still feeling good when he is engulfed by a crowd of young people and then is swept into a breathtaking encounter with Billy Idol that takes a hilarious turn.

Meanwhile, back in Tims Creek, in the story “I Thought I Heard the Shuffle of Angels’ Feet,” Cicero Cross has been visiting his Uncle Dax in an effort to persuade the old man to sell his land, leading to an angry confrontation. Driving back to his home in Maryland, the car he’s driving — his deceased lover’s Lexus — breaks down. While we learn the backstory of Cicero’s relationship with Jacson, a flamboyant Brazilian who has died of AIDS, Cicero is rescued by Tony, an old friend who has stayed in the area. The past floods back, reminding him of the importance of his connections to the area, and leads Cicero to attempt to reconcile with his uncle.

The collection’s title and the titles of many of its stories are derived from hymns or other songs and serve as a spiritual linkage among them, and some of the stories are directly tied to the church. In the opening story, Ed Phelps is in New York because his wife, one of the leaders of her Baptist congregation, is in the city for a convention. In “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the protagonist, a minister, belt-whips a man who has been sleeping with the minister’s wife. Questions of faith are raised in “The Acts of Velmajean Swearington Hoyt and The New City of God,” in which a woman’s encounter with a mysterious man leads to her performance of apparent miracles — but is the man actually a messenger of God?

Kenan is known as a writer of magical realism, and this also is on display in these stories. In “Resurrection Hardware; or, Lard & Promises,” a character named Randall Kenan returns to Tims Creek to restore a 200-year-old house and barn, and in the process encounters the ghosts of runaway slaves and, perhaps, the Quaker family that tried to aid their escape. The ominous hog in “Now Why Come That Is,” at first seems to be an apparition that only Percy can see, but when it wreaks havoc in church during Sunday services, it raises questions that the story doesn’t quite answer.

Kenan’s work not only establishes a rich fictional landscape that gives life to a vibrant cast of characters — many descendants of freed slaves who settled the area — but also colorful language. Ed Phelps is said to “make miration” of a fruit stand in New York, an expression I had not heard before that means “to admire.” Kenan uses the word “teetotaciously” twice, once in describing the tableau of ghosts the character Randall Kenan sees in his barn: “All expired, all teetotaciously exflunctified.” The expression means “totally worn out,” as I learned from a thirty-year-old essay in The New York Times Magazine discussing the archaic American English of an 1840 editorial that used it to describe the national government of the time. Archaic English apparently survives in Kenan’s Tims Creek.

If I Had Two Wings cements Kenan’s reputation as one of America’s finest writers, and the language of the traditional hymn from which the title is taken provides an appropriate epitaph for a writer taken from us too soon:

“Two wings to veil my face.
Two wings to veil my feet.
Two wings to fly away,
And the world can’t do me no harm.”

If I Had Two Wings
By Randall Kenan
W.W. Norton
Published August 4, 2020