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James McBride's 'Five-Carat Soul' Is A Gem

There are a lot of things to admire about James McBride: chiefly, his refusal to be pinned down. The journalist and writer took the literary world by storm in 1995 with his memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, then followed it up with three well-received historical novels, the most recent of which, The Good Lord Bird, won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. Between books, he's busied himself with screenwriting, songwriting, and playing his beloved tenor saxophone.

It's fitting, then, that McBride's wonderful debut short story collection, Five-Carat Soul, covers so much ground. The book begins with a story about a coveted toy train set, and ends with one about a zoo full of animals who can communicate with one another. Some are straightforward; some are gleefully surreal. And every one of them is brash, daring and defiantly original.

The first story in the collection, "The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set," centers on a monomaniacal vintage toy salesman with a knack for getting what he wants. ("Toy collecting is a small world," he boasts, "and in that world I am Pete Rose, Henry Aaron, and the Babe, all rolled into one.") He can barely contain his excitement when he learns that the train set in question — a bespoke toy that Robert E. Lee gave his son shortly before the child died — is in the hands of a preacher in Queens, who is apparently unaware of his value.

The preacher insists on giving the collector the toy for free, throwing him for a loop. As he tries to get the stubborn minister to accept his money, he learns that the man's life isn't quite what it seems. It's a story that ends in a genuinely surprising place — McBride has a talent for crafting stories that don't end where the reader might guess.

That's the case with "Father Abe," a sweet story about a makeshift orphanage for African American boys — "[e]ighteen little colored children, tiny tufts of life" — in Virginia toward the end of the Civil War. One of the boys is named Abraham Lincoln; a soldier tells him, jokingly, that the boy's father is the 16th president.

Little Abe doesn't get the joke, however, and runs away, eventually ending up with another group of soldiers who are unable to convince him that his father isn't the Great Emancipator. The end of the story is touching and hopeful, and it's one that, again, the reader likely won't see coming.

Four of the stories form something of a cycle, centered around a group of middle school-aged boys who play in the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band in Uniontown, Pa. The stories are musical, with McBride perfectly capturing the rhythm of the boys' speech. In "Buck Boy," the owner of a Chinese restaurant over which they practice their music shoots and kills a would-be robber, throwing the town into a crisis.

"The news don't care," says the narrator, Butter, of the ensuing media firestorm. "News is news. And The Bottom is always good news for the news. 'Cause we mostly bad news." The story is a smart reflection on racial resentment and the realities of life in a poor, mostly African American neighborhood; the other three stories about the boys in the band are just as good.

McBride's collection closes with the stunning "Mr. P and the Wind," which takes place in a zoo where the animals (or "Higher Orders," as they call themselves) communicate with one another telepathically. They hold human beings ("Smelly Ones") in contempt for talking "with their tongues going one place and their heart going another."

When the animals encounter a zookeeper who can communicate with them through telepathy, they're at first nonplussed, but slowly grow to accept him. But when a Gorilla named Rubs tells a story about the wind, it sets off a chain reaction of shocking events. There's no reason that a story featuring telepathic zoo animals should work, but McBride pulls it off; in his hands, the fantastical tale turns both heartbreaking and triumphant.

That's an accurate way to describe McBride's entire collection. The stories in Five-Carat Soul vary widely in style and setting, but they're all linked by the author's compassionate sensibilities. The characters in this book — human and otherwise — feel real and beautifully drawn, and their stories are bound to stay with readers for a very long time.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.