Pow-Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience -- Two Centuries of Short Fiction edited by Ishmael Reed with Carla Blank (DaCapo Press, 502 pages, $28 hardcover, $18 paper). Now that he is 70 and has left a four-decade trail of writing, teaching and anthologizing behind him, Ishmael Reed has given us a decent glimpse of how he'll look to posterity. As much as one treasures his fiction -- especially his first four books -- and his decades of multi-culti agitation, I don't think there's been anyone remotely like him as an anthologist. It's there, it seems to me, that his service to literature has been irreplaceable.
He has managed, somewhat incredibly, to give us an anthology of 200 years of American short fiction that is wildly diverse and even more wildly unfamiliar. Anyone expecting the usual suspects in the American short story trade will find precious few ( Stanley Elkin's "I Look Out for Ed Wolfe," James T. Farrell's "For White Men Only," Mark Twain's "War Prayer" and Grace Paley's "Goodbye and Good Luck" are about as orthodox as it gets which, to be blunt, isn't very.)
Instead, you can find everything from Benjamin Franklin's blisteringly ironic "Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim in the Slave Trade" which invents an African "anno 1687" who justifies enslaving hated "Christian dogs" ("if we forebear to make slaves of their people, who, in this hot climate, are we to cultivate our lands?") to John A. Williams' "Son in the Afternoon" about a Hollywoodian hired "to check scripts and films with Negroes in them to make sure the Negro moviegoer wouldn't be offended."
Nor are matters always racial, contentatious, agitated or even conventional fiction. Robert Hass' "The Dry Mountain Air," is a poem about an aged grandmother who arrives from the train station in "an old Lincoln touring car" and takes off "her large, black, squarish, thatched and feathered confection of a hat" ever so carefully "as if it were a saucer of water" not to be spilled and set it down "carefully, solicitously even, as if it were a nest of fledgling birds (which it resembled.)"
A wonderful anthology from Reed and his wife Carla Blank.
-- Jeff Simon