Book Review: If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan

If I Had Two Wings – Randall Kenan (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020)

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. This title is on sale 3 August 2020.

This is a strange and somewhat surreal collection of short stories. Each one is tied to the fictional North Carolina town of Tims Creek. I wouldn’t call them linked stories though some characters show up in more than one story. The stories deal with race, sexuality, religion, and personal history.

Food is also a common theme, particularly the way it brings people together and how it can pass on histories in ways that nothing else can. In The Eternal Glory That is Ham Hocks, the narrator learns that his mother was once pursued by Howard Hughes, who wanted her to make her mother’s butter beans for him.

One or two stories felt overly involved, too many characters and too much background to be explained in a short space so that I ended up feeling lost and wanted to check out. Two stories felt like they had such similar characters that I had to go back and check names to see if we were re-visiting the same characters.

Preachers show up in many stories, exuding a certain Southern charisma and power that we often associate with Southern preachers, while at the same time Kenan explores the vulnerabilities of the religious. In Ain’t No Sunshine, a preacher walks into the sheriff’s office to confess that he has beaten his wife’s lover. Religion is explored in a different way in The Acts of Velmajean Swearington Hoyt and the New City of God when a middle-aged widow begins performing miracles after joining a mega-church. I particularly liked the way Kenan explored endings in this story, offering a variety of perspectives on an ambitious ending while also harkening back to church history.

Many of the stories have this sense of questioning. How much do we believe about what the narrator is telling us? The main character in Now Why Come That Is is followed by a giant hog that, most of the time, no one else can see. Is the hog real? Is Percy responsible for the death and destruction his ancestors left behind? Interestingly, this is one of the only stories with a white character. In the story that follows, whether or not we believe a letter a character receives, offers another ambiguous ending and leaves us questioning the main character’s true feelings.

While this story collection wasn’t one I personally connected with much, I feel like it might be more poignant for a reader with greater ties either to the south or some of the other lives represented here. Kenan has a strong vision and there are a multitude of fascinating characters created. In fact, I think a novel-length book might work even better for some of them and allow the author to fully delve into these characters’ worlds.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan”

  1. As Callum says, it does sound intriguing, although I often find with short stories that I wish the author had expanded them into a novel instead – they often leave me feeling unsatisfied.

    1. I generally quite like short stories. Several of these did feel like they’d be better as a novel though so I know what you mean.

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