Book World reviews 'Rebel Yell' by Alice Randall

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By James A. Miller
Wednesday, January 6, 2010


By Alice Randall

Bloomsbury. 370 pp. $25

"Rebel Yell" is the third novel by Alice Randall, who first came to public attention with "The Wind Done Gone," her parody of "Gone With the Wind," which triggered a fierce fight with Margaret Mitchell's estate. This time she turns her gaze away from the world of Tara and draws us into the private lives and public rituals of contemporary African American elites.

The novel begins when Abel Jones Jr., the son of a legendary African American civil rights lawyer, attends a Southern dinner theater called the Rebel Yell, complete with "horses, war songs, and Confederate battle re-enactors." Leaving his second wife, a white woman, and their children at the table, he just makes it to the bathroom before he collapses and dies a short time later.

Over the course of his life, Abel had become an ardent neoconservative, from his early years as a foreign service officer to his final position as a White House special advocate to the Pentagon, an assignment that connected him to the shadowy War on Terror: "September eleventh. Waterboarding, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib." After his death, his first wife, Hope, a black woman still attached to Abel through their teenage son, feels compelled to piece together the life of a man she once knew and loved.

Hope's reminiscences and travels span many decades and traverse several continents, from the early years of the civil rights movement to the electoral triumph of Barack Obama. In the process, "Rebel Yell" offers a rich journey through the world of distinguished graduates of Southern black colleges, black fraternities and sororities, Jack and Jill societies, Ivy League institutions and summer vacations at Martha's Vineyard -- the world, in short, of a black elite whose lives are only dimly glimpsed by many Americans.

Narrated in the third person, the novel often unspools and sometimes meanders and digresses, often in the form of flashbacks and sometimes at the expense of clarifying the enigma of Abel Jones Jr. At the same time, "Rebel Yell" raises the intriguing possibility that something went badly awry with some of the children who came of age during the most terror-ridden years of the civil rights movement. "Rebel Yell" is chock-full of such possible lines of development, but often they spin off into cul-de-sacs. Part detective story, part love story, "Rebel Yell" is a novel deeply suffused with nostalgia and mourning.

Miller is the author of "Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial."

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