"Pushkin and the Queen of Spades" oughton Mifflin, 280 pages, $24) - Alice Randall
If novelist Alice Randall stirred up trouble with her controversial parody, "The Wind Done Gone," she kicks up dirt with her second novel, which challenges stereotypes about race, beauty and motherhood, and explores the taboo subject of interracial relationships.
"Pushkin and the Queen of Spades" is a densely packed philosophical discussion about black culture and family, with all of its hopes and flaws - "stories of folk who squeezed love from madness."
Randall's characters are vividly portrayed, strong, complex and sometimes tragic. We don't always agree with what they say or do but we certainly understand the motivation behind it.
The novel tells the story of Windsor Armstrong, a professor of Russian literature whose beloved son, Pushkin X, has become a successful, professional football player and is about to marry a white Russian immigrant, who happens to be a lap dancer.
But more about that later.
If it takes a village to raise a child, Windsor learned about life from a village populated with gangsters, pimps and killers, but she also found love with an alcoholic father "who never had a plan in his life."
Her father, Leo, taught her pride by loving his blackness (he quoted Malcolm X). Though Windsor has no relationship with her mother, Lena, whom she describes as "probably the world's last tragic mulatto passing for white," she begrudgingly acknowledges that Lena taught her how to be a good mother.
She learned strength from her whiskey-drinking aunt Martha Rachel, whom she calls her second mother, and street smarts from people like a pimp named Delicious and Spady, a numbers runner.
Randall confronts stereotypes about race, about black men and beauty, about parents and their children, about unwed teenage mothers, then sets out to explode them in your face.
Windsor, a Harvard graduate and Fulbright scholar, is a loving mother but an intellectual snob. She names her son after Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, the great-grandson of an African slave, and Malcolm X. She exposes him to the arts and literature in hopes that he will grow up to be like her - cultured and going beyond what others expect of him.
So why then would her son, this man who showed so much promise as a child, who she believes would have been able to outthink Bear Bryant if the Bear were still alive and Pushkin had gone to the University of Alabama, why would her son grow up to be another stereotype: "strong black body, black athlete."
"Professors of Russian literature do not spawn football players. Their sons do not marry lap dancers," Windsor says.
"Have you reached for low culture and stereotype because I all but drowned you in high culture and eccentricity?" she wonders.
The philosophical questions Windsor grapples with can be maddening, particularly at the beginning, because Pushkin's actions make his mother crazy (what mother hasn't experienced a paranoid episode or two). On another level, Randall's writing style can be confusing as it rejects familiar formulas of composition and structure and switches tracks, in haphazard fashion, from one anecdote, place and time to something altogether different.
But read on. Randall summons W.E.B. Du Bois and even Othello to discuss race and beauty. Later, she delivers a rap poem that translates the Russian poet's unfinished story about his great-grandfather, "The Negro of Peter the Great," (Pushkin conveys disgust for his ancestor's "thick lips and kinky hair") and Randall cleverly transforms it into a love song about black beauty.
Reading "Pushkin and The Queen of Spades" is like riding the Cyclone at Coney Island, bouncing high along a track you're not totally comfortable with because it shakes you up.
This is a provocative and sociologically significant novel that addresses issues that are central not only to contemporary black America.