Publishers Weekly, October 2009
Abel Jones, Jr., son of a famous black civil rights lawyer, has died while dining with his second wife, a white woman, at a dinner theater reenacting the Confederate perspective on the Civil War. How did Abel’s life come to such a pass? His first wife, Hope, and a former colleague, Nicholas, get together after the funeral to recall Abel’s life and motivation. All the while, Hope is haunted by the possibility that Abel may have been involved in CIA operations, including torture. She left the marriage to save herself and their young son from Abel’s latent violence and wonders if she could have saved Abel if she stayed. Listening to Nicholas, a British dandy and very likely a spy, Hope flashes to meeting Abel at Harvard and travelling with him to his first Foreign Service assignment, in Manila. Randall moves masterfully between past and present and between Nashville, Washington, D.C. , Manila, and Rome to present an intriguing portrait of a young black couple struggling with racial identity and expectations. As in The Wind Done Gone (2001) and Pushkin and the Queen of Spades (2004), Randall demonstrates, with delicious imagery and a sense of racial irony, a love for history’s forgotten and overlooked.
Vanessa Bush, Booklist. August 1. 2009. Starred Review.
"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.
James A. Miller, Washington Post (author of "Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial.")
Alice Randall has great ideas for novels. Her first book, "The Wind Done Gone," cleverly reimagined Margaret Mitchell's novel from the point of view of Scarlett O'Hara's half-black sister, a slave and Rhett Butler's secret lover. Her new novel, "Rebel Yell," also illuminates a dark corner of African American experience.
At the center of the book is Abel Jones Jr., the son of a black lawyer who helped desegregate the South, who comes to serve as "Special Advocate at the Pentagon" under George W. Bush. Randall raises the compelling question: How could an African American who grew up during the civil rights movement oversee a foreign policy in which imprisoned men were tortured and humiliated?
Abel Jones Jr. was born "colored-baby royalty." Langston Hughes wrote a poem celebrating his birth. Thurgood Marshall attended his first wedding - to an African American woman named Hope, whom he met at Harvard.
But by the time the novel opens, Abel has run afield of his father's dreams. We meet him at "the Rebel Yell," a restaurant where the waiters re-enact Confederate battle glories, and where he is dining with his white second wife and their kids. In their company, Abel can pass for Caucasian. But he's alone when he has an asthma attack in the bathroom, and the racist paramedics barely try to save his life.
After Abel's inglorious death, his first wife learns that he was not a diplomat as she always thought but a spy, and that he was somehow involved with - perhaps even responsible for - Abu Ghraib.
Hope sets out to meet with people who knew "different Abels," trying to construct a clearer picture of the man she once loved, and the father of her son. Again this is a great idea, but Randall's execution is haphazard, more concept than character-driven, less dramatized than theorized, and structurally disjointed.
Hope learns much of her information over cocktails with an aging gay man named Nicholas, with whom she and her husband socialized when they were stationed in Manila, who owns that he too was a spy.
While Nicholas is droll, the details he divulges into the life of espionage are vague and unconvincing. He admits he's an unreliable storyteller, so when he hints that Abel might have been gay, that they might even have had a tryst, Hope doesn't believe it and the information feels tangential.
In her search to uncover the real Abel, Hope never considers talking to his second wife or their three daughters, who feel as flat as cardboard cutouts, props intended to show how Abel lost his way.
The novel is stronger when it delves into Abel's childhood. The book opens with a heartbreaking flashback to when the Jones family drove across the South to attend the funeral of one of the girls who died in the bombing of the Birmingham Baptist church. Abel's father won't explain to the boy why he can't stop the car to let him get out and pee, not wanting "his son to feel, when fully grown, what he was feeling, full grown, too scared."
Malena Watrous, San Francisco Chronicle
Anyone aware of the many contradictions that embody black lifein these United States will find in Ms. Randall’s latest work acompelling and insightful read. As shown by her previous work, notablyPushkin and the Queen of Spades, she has the knack for illuminating the“place” of African Americans in the world and how that is bothpropelled and hindered by the past. Clementine Hope Jones, a worldly and wealthy Harvard graduate,tells the story of her first husband, the suave, brilliant andbeautiful Abel Jones Jr., who while achieving wealth and internationalrecognition as a diplomat in locales from Manila to Martinique remainshaunted by the terror of segregation with which he grew up. His father,a prominent black lawyer, has also been irrevocably scarred by theterror and violence of the nation’s segregated past. A scene in which across is burned on the lawn interrupting Abel’s 13th-birthday partycould well become a classic of American literature. Ms. Randall, as she has before, tackles uncomfortable questionsabout race, gender, and sexuality in a way that is as uncommon as it isgrittily real. She also explores unflinchingly the issue of child abusein the black family, an urgent topic that few contemporary writers haveeven attempted to tackle. Bloomsbury, 368 pages, $25 Deborah Willis, The Urban News, Gateway to the Multicultural Community, Ashville, North Carolina.
Alice Randall’s Rebel Yell (Bloomsbury) addresses race, class, backroom politics, and family intrigue through the intellectual yet heart-smart lens of Harvard-educated African-American Hope Jones Blackshear. Traveling between her native Nashville and Rome, Blackshear faces down facts and fictions of her own past that parallel the tumult of America’s first postmillennial decade.
Lisa Shea, Elle Magazine
“[Rebel Yell] will make you laugh, yell (a little), and think (a lot).” Essence Magazine As he dies, Abel Jones III remembers being 4, riding from Nashville to Birmingham with his mother and father, a fiery black civil rights lawyer, to attend the funeral of his baby-sitter, Carole, who died in a church bombing. Carole's mother's sobs and his father's rage terrify him. He remembers being 6, marching with his daddy in Selma, singing "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round." When a policeman strikes his father down, Abel runs away. At his 13th birthday party, he watches a cross burning on his front yard and pees in his pants. He remembers the slaps and beatings he got for showing his fear. Hardly the sort of early training that could be expected to produce, in 40 years, an eminent black neo-conservative who's happy to pass for white in the dining hall of a Southern theme park in rural North Carolina. Not exactly what his father, who fought to "desegregate every school in Tennessee," had dreamed of --- a son who would one day pay good money to sit with his white wife and their children, surrounded by galloping horses and Confederate banners, humming along as "the fiddle sobbed out I wish I was in de land of cotton, old times dere are not forgotten." Abel's inexplicable defection is the mystery at the heart of Alice Randall's "Rebel Yell," a captivating, if bumpy, journey that asks how a black son of the civil rights era ended up as a major player in George W. Bush's administration. The book opens with Abel's death from an asthma attack, following his collapse during the above-mentioned Civil War re-enactment. Playing detective is Abel's first wife, Hope Blackshear, who arrives at his funeral with the intention of paying her respects, no more --- until she runs into an old friend, a dapper ex-KGB agent who claims that the husband Hope knew as a diplomat was actually a CIA operative. Faced with a handful of Polaroids from Abu Ghraib and the possibility that Abel was involved, Hope is drawn to take a closer look at their shared past. Through Hope's flashbacks and stories other friends share, the book tracks the couple's backgrounds, early childhoods, their days at Harvard, and finally the years of their marriage. In light of new discoveries, Hope sees a new side to many of her memories of Abel: The significance of the poetry he cherished, the statue of the Confederate soldier he loved, even the way he once slapped their child. Though the book makes a case for how civil rights-era violence and the shame of his own fear could have led Abel to the Pentagon --- his perception being that it was a bastion of safety --- there are clues that his choices were more complicated. Hope remembers that Abel loathed being considered a cliche, and wonders if this urge to transcend stereotypes drove him to accept the "deep cover" life of a spy. Some books, like people, are as irresistible as they are irritating. The show-off, self-important tone that often characterizes "Rebel Yell" can get tedious. Randall has a tendency toward flowery prose; when she can't find the word or phrase she wants, she hyphenates. In the course of exploring every bend of Abel's unexpected path, her Scheherazadean tale sprawls and interrupts itself, sometimes telling too much or not enough. On the other hand, the book is a veritable feast of black culture: Randall stacks her pages full of surprises---history lessons, choice bits about artists, poets and musicians, vignettes of the "black bougie" lives Hope and Abel led. Like Abel, Randall defies convention. Prep-schooled, Harvard- educated, her controversial first novel, "The Wind Done Gone," was a sly reappraisal of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," told from the slaves' point of view. In Abel's "signature consistent inconstancies" lie the real mystery of how he grew up black but not proud in the way he was expected to have been: a son "who loved Jane Austen and Bootsy Collins," a damaged father, a lover who shyly named his wife "my Rebel Yeller"---and a passionate idealist who may have left the earth a safer place by disappearing from the face of it. Gina Webb, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author, novelist, professor, social critic and hit country music songwriter Alice Randall enjoys confronting, exposing and subverting the contradictions, ironies and delights of the Southern experience. Whether it's race, class, gender, or cuisine, the characters and plots in such past Randall novels as The Wind Done Gone or Pushkin and the Queen of Spades tweak, satirize and sometimes just straight-out blitz both conventional and unconventional ideas about authenticity, class and race, and their manifest forms in the 21st century.
Still, as good as those books are, they've just paved the way for Randall's latest, an innovative, captivating work that blends mystery, politics, philosophy, comedy and pointed observational barbs as it punctures any illusions about a post-racial America. Rebel Yell (Bloomsbury) just might be the best novelistic example yet of the mission statement Randall details on her website: "I am deeply intrigued by the problems and possibilities that began to arise when Southern rural blacks migrated to the industrial North. Including the particular difficulties encountered by black Americans when they seek to return home. My abiding interest in and appreciation of country music song lyric and Southern foodways inform my understanding of the South and are informed by my understanding of the South."
That dynamic is central in the creation of arguably her most fascinating character, Abel Jones Jr. He's what some would consider the embodiment of a 21st century race traitor (or what others would simply label an "Uncle Tom"). The son of a civil rights lawyer, Jones has become part of the black neoconservative wing, a group that recoils in horror at the clothes, music, attitudes and lexicon of contemporary black America. Jones' rejection of his background (his father's track record on the race battlefield was exemplary) factors into a host of other key decisions, including his pick of a second, less combative wife.
She's by his side when Jones comes to the end of the road in rather spectacular fashion early in the novel. He collapses at a dinner theater appropriately known as the "Rebel Yell," a place where actors in Confederate garb can function in a closed universe without fear of anyone pointing out they represent the regional version of the Flat Earth Society. In a taboo-twisting turn worthy of Dave Chappelle, Jones has even become a black Confederate, choosing this group to be among his closest associates and friends.
Shortly after his funeral, while sharing drinks and memories with her former husband's old friend Nicholas Gordon, his surviving first widow Hope Jones Blackshear soon flashes back to their time together. The bittersweet occasion becomes her chance to provide a personal account of their relationship and the things that shaped and influenced his evolution.
Randall's method is associative, not chronological. But she swiftly sketches the gradual warping of Jones' views and ideals, from his perilous childhood to meeting Blackshear at Harvard to their subsequent years as a youthful married couple working for the foreign service in the Philippines and Martinique. As tension creeps into their marriage and their politics diverge, it eventually becomes apparent they don't share ideas on childcare and domesticity. Nor can they live together as a couple.
Recounted through Blackshear's reminiscences, Rebel Yell contains much about her evolution and the erosion of her marriage, and its insider details of sorority functions, family dinners and class gossip among Nashville's stratified racial hierarchies sound as convincing as one would expect from a writer with Randall's own well-traveled, keenly observed life. The specificity Randall provides throughout the book gives a real face to not only black conservatives, but also to Fisk, TSU and Meharry professors, the members of Delta Sigma Theta, and numerous others organizations you seldom, if ever, see portrayed in films and television shows about black Americans. The author sees their nuances, and understands why they matter.
But it's her sympathetic but acid-etched portrait of Jones, and his morphing into a Thomas Sowell or Armstrong Williams, that elevates Rebel Yell above a polemic along the lines of Michael Eric Dyson's heavy-handed takedown of Bill Cosby. Why didn't the specter of racial turmoil and conflict shape Abel Jones Jr.'s life in the manner of so many second-generation post-civil-rights leaders, who were nudged toward activism? That's among the many thorny questions Randall raises at a time when the afterglow of President Barack Obama's election has sparked the wishful thinking that our national dialogue on race is over, case closed. Because Jones never really understood the commitment or anguish of his famous parents, Randall suggests, he takes for granted the achievements that their sacrifice helped obtain. He considers that a closed chapter in history and now deems any emphasis or even mention of that era specifically—and race in general—as unnecessary and divisive.
Yet Randall doesn't present Jones as a figure of pity. Instead, he's both a curious and tragic figure. Because he's so disconnected from his heritage and people, his rise and fall are unenviable. But he achieves a mental peace and social confidence from this stance that somewhat shields him from the usual barbs and charges. In a larger sense, Rebel Yell spotlights the alienation black conservatives feel toward their own people, and their willingness to isolate themselves and even embrace groups who either implicitly or directly demean them. Jones doesn't see this as anything but natural. But Randall's novel indicates just how deeply this represents self-loathing and hatred and both a misunderstanding and rejection of his family history—less a rebel yell than a rebel's hell.
Ron Wynn, Nashville Scene
***Click Here for Chapter16.org Review (Humanities Tennessee)***
***Click Here for Civil War Novels.com Review***
Rebel Yell is a powerful and compelling novel about racial and regional identity, about marriage and about the ways in which the social and cultural upheavals of the sixties continue to reverberate through the American subconscious.
Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City; Last of the Savages; How it Ended.
Alice Randall has given us Hope. And Hope helps us understand that black and white, more than a definition of contrasting colors, and more than a means of identifying two races, is the sum of our dark past, our glowing present and our bright future.
Alice Randall has written a powerful 21st- century novel of mourning. Brimming with history from the tumultuous Kennedy era and Civil Rights Movement to the present global moment, REBEL YELL mourns extensive losses, not just of bodies– those who died or of those who survived and at what costs– but primarily of idealism and activism for love and justice whether in racial, marital, political, or social relations. Writing with razor-smart humor to puncture the sadness and mystery at the center, Randall delivers up an exquisite meditation on physical and psychological lives lived and lost in arenas often considered beyond black people, whether in emotional feeling or in material fact. Both a political novel of intrigue in the Foreign Service and its residue in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and a protest novel against the violence done from Little Rock to Birmingham and its legacy in America’s black elite, REBEL YELL moves with conviction and courage through the complex world that was to the unresolved world that is still becoming.
Thadious M. Davis, Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Women’s Life Unveiled, and Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner’s Go Down Moses.
With Rebel Yell, Alice Randall proves herself to be one of the bravest and insightful writers of her generation. This is a novel of ideas-- brimming with high concepts and complicated philiophical questions. At the same time, it is a novel full of heart. It's about love gone right, and love gone wrong. It's also a history of a family as well as a history of a people and the history of a nation. This novel itself if the yell of a rebel-- Alice Randall-- as she once again claws at the shell of our dearest-held myths and shows the world what's inside.
This elegant monument to our national past bears a viaticum for our future: allusive and funny, tender and elegiac, celebratory and loving all at once, Rebel Yell performs a capable act of imagination that reconciles fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, black and white, region and world, the living and their dead in a grand harmonic register; it strikes a new lyric for the American novel!
“With Rebel Yell, we enter the world of a cosmopolitan black elite, halfway between the characters of Stephen Carter’s old Gold Coast families of DC and Dorothy West's of Martha's Vineyard, anchored with stirrings of Toni Morrison’s Love. Randall’s characters hail from old Nashville with its rich civil rights history and social clubs. Weaved into this complicated world of politics, race and class, is a tale of love, hope, and redemption. Alice Randall is a southern writer with an international trajectory and this novel confirms her place at the forefront of African American novelists.”