by Alice Randall
Reviewed by Reginald Harris
“Abel was dying white. It was a triumph.”
The mystery of how a person can turn his back on his past is at the center of Alice Randall’s novel Rebel Yell. As the story opens, Abel Jones Jr., son of a famous Nashville civil rights lawyer, collapses in the men’s room of the Rebel Yell dinner theater where actors are portraying horseback-riding heroes of the Confederacy. Over the years, Abel has divorced his black wife, married a white woman, and become a neo-conservative working for the second Bush administration as a White House Liaison to the Pentagon, charged with such things as developing justifications for the torture at Abu Ghraib.
The road he took from “Civil Rights Royalty” and meeting Dr. Martin Luther King to black community pariah is explored after his death by Hope, Abel’s first wife and mother of his only son, Ajay. As she tries to discover more about his life, the novel flashes back to their first meeting at Harvard, their lives together as a young Foreign Service couple living in Martinique and the Philippines, and Hope’s increasing suspicion, fueled by Abel’s old friend, British dandy Nicholas Gordon, that Abel was in fact a spy. Traveling from Nashville, to Rome, to Washington DC, the more she finds out, the more uncertain Hope becomes about her late husband: was he having affairs with women, men, or both? And could he even still be alive?
It is difficult to write about a character like Abel who has so many secrets, continually keeping both his motives and his emotions hidden. The sections of Rebel Yell that journey back to his childhood attempt to offer some clue to his transformation through his reaction to the violence of white response to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early ’60s, and Abel Junior’s fraught relationship with his father. Of a central event in his life, the burning of a cross on the family lawn at Abel’s 13th birthday party, Randall writes, “He would find his safe place. He would find the strong men. He would make all the weak people and all the vicious people and all the weak and vicious people pay. He cuddled to the truth like it was a stuffed bear: terror is bigger than love and shelter sweeter than excitement.” As one of his eulogists says at his funeral, it seems Abel, “consciously chose to infect a nation with the anxieties of black children who came of age in a time of terror when the war at home rocked their churches. …The President, smug fraternity boy he might be, had the good sense to choose worried Negroes to watch-dog his world. God save us all!”
Best known for The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall has said that she “writes novels that comment on other novels,” and Rebel Yell is no different. Part of the genesis of Rebel Yell may be Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel, whose central story of a character that repudiates his black stepfather and grows up to become a race-baiting senator, was published as Juneteenth in 1999. Randall’s humor and penchant for satire occasionally shine through in the novel as well as she sends up the black upper middle class during a vacation Hope takes on Martha’s Vineyard. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice puts in a thinly veiled appearance as Abel’s colleague “Aria Reese,” and Abel even has a brief encounter with a certain then-junior senator from Illinois.
Abel’s ex-wife, Hope Jones Bradshear, is a fascinating character in her own right and one wants to learn more about her as Abel continues to remain elusive. The mixed-race daughter of a member of a moderately successful all-female country music group–“You’re My ‘Rebel Yalla’” Abel says to her–she married one of Abel’s best friends after her divorce. During their times together, she and Abel shared a fascination with those who confounded racial expectations, like themselves and the black southern soldiers found carved on the Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery, although she too is left confused by the turn Abel’s life took in his later years.
Everyone has a secret in Rebel Yell, or is engaged in varying degrees of spying on or for someone else. Sadly, not enough secrets are revealed, and too many questions remain surrounding the central character (Abel) to make the novel ultimately satisfying. Randall’s satire doesn’t bite hard enough or range wide enough to skewer such a ripe target as black neo-cons. She hints and gives suggestions about what Abel and others were up to, but leaves perhaps too much to the reader’s imagination. Despite its title, Rebel Yell is not the full-throated cry characters like these deserve.