In “The Sad, Sweet Story of Sugar Lips Shinehot, the Man With the Portable Promised Land,” author Touré crowds the streets of New York with invisible folk. Unlike Ellison’s titanic invention, however, these invisible men and woman are white, and they happen to be invisible solely to Sugar Lips Shinehot. Sugar Lips is but one of the bemusing characters in The Portable Promised Land, a debut collection that limns with a fine confidence and cheeky humor the fabulous, the fantastical, the incantatory.
Before all of Manhattan began looking to him like Negro Heaven, Sugar Lips had been a legendary sax player in the making. Then he got his pleasure-giving puss remolded into “a mangled ol’ fist” by a couple of white sailors. Soon after this beat down, Sugar is approached by an associate of Reverend Doctor Bernard Z. LeBub. Touré delivers this meeting as deft comedy by way of chitlin’ circuit repartee and Zora Neale Hurston folktales.
“It was them crackers tore you up, right?” [asks the minion.]
“Yeah,” [says Sugar.]
“You can’t play your horn?”
“You can’t kiss your women?”
“Make you mad?”
“Make you mad at all crackers?”
“So mad you hate them?”
“I don’t know about all that.”
“Wish you could wipe them honkeys off the earth as you know it?”
“What Negro hasn’t once or twice?”
“Well then . . . This here’s your lucky day.”
The bamboozling is a familiar one: another clueless soul suckered into an eternal swap. Much like the wishes granted by genies, the pact immediately demands revision. White people don’t really disappear from Sugar’s world. He just can’t see them. For Sugar this not-seeing is believing the world a haven. It’s a faith he enjoys even after he’s hammered by some invisible cops. They, after all, can see him. But Sugar relishes his newfound role as non-seer. So much so, he feels compelled to offer the folk of Harlem a new miracle: a Negro flying. This is when the story of Sugar Lips Shinehot gets sadder, sweeter, and lethally fanciful.
Sugar’s not the only one of Touré’s characters to take wing in these vivid urban folktales. During a Sunday sermon at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls, the Right Revren Daddy Love gets to floating above his pulpit, which unhappily turns out to have been built atop a rancid pool of extra-strength frying oil. Then there’s Negritude College’s hoop star Falcon Malone in “Falcon Malone Can Fly No Mo.” He of the hoodoo-blessed Nikes loses his mojo to a similarly gifted player in a Soul City playground shootout.
Quite a few of The Portable Promised Land‘s citizens reside in Soul City, a sister city to Italo Calvino’s invisible metropolis. In Soul City, the sublime and the ridiculous knock boots. There, Huggy Bear Jackson routinely takes a slow ride in his “pristine money-green 1983 Cadillac Cutlass Supreme custom convertible with gold rims, neon-green lights underneath, and a post-state-of-the-art Harmon Kardon system with sixteen speakers, wireless remote, thirty-disc changer, and the clearest sound imaginable.” So what if this ride clocks a molasses 15 mph. In “The Steviewondermobile,” the soundtrack is more important than making tracks. When his car stalls, does Huggy rethink his priorities? “Did he know,” wonders the narrator, “that if the backup battery was connected to the electrical system instead of the sound system that he could’ve kept on driving? Sure he did.”
The stories here—with their flip-o’-the-script comeuppances and Technicolor folly—could be called morality tales. Except judgment and superiority get tossed on their butts by the vibrant, the messy, the absurd. Not that the author’s wry fondness for his characters stops him from wrestling with their contradictions. And nowhere is this more affecting than in his story-cycle about the Black Widow, a revolutionary MC straight outta . . .
When first we meet the Black Widow, née Isis Jackson, her 32-track debut album, You Are Who You Kill, is set to break out. She totes a pink Uzi she calls Lil’ Sis. She’s buffered by gal pals who’d dethrone a queen bee in a nanosecond. She drops this bit of wisdom on the magazine scribe profiling her: “There is only one antidote for white supremacy. It is a bullet, delivered swiftly to the cranium. The higher the caliber, the more effective the treatment.” Is she for show or for real? A Black revolution incarnate or a brilliant and deadly strutting of bad faith? The interviewer may not be skeptical enough, but for his inventor this is a familiar quandary. Touré, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, likely knows a thing or two about the tussle between performance and authenticity when profiling a celebrity.
Still, in the darker tales of the Black Widow as in the brighter vignettes, Touré is in no rush to resolve the existential tangles of his characters. Grasping identity—Isis Jackson’s, or for that matter, hip-hop’s—is a layered operation. If there’s a moral to be had, it would go a little something like this: You could peel this onion just enough to think the sis’s message reeks. You could carve it a bit more to know it stings. Or, as Touré does: You could keep working it until it makes you cry for the pain that the contradictions of race can cause for the tender among us.