Ellison's Unfinished Second Novel Still Essential

By Jackson, Henry C | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 28, 2010 | Go to article overview

Ellison's Unfinished Second Novel Still Essential


Jackson, Henry C, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


For writers, the trouble with writing a great -- or, shoot, even a good or slightly better-than-average first novel -- is something at once both nebulous and stark: your second novel.

Now, imagine you're Ralph Ellison. Your first novel, "Invisible Man," isn't just great, it's iconic. Commercially successful, critically acclaimed and, you could argue pretty credibly, darned near perfect. Where do you even begin?

As it turns out, beginning wasn't Ellison's problem. "Three Days Before the Shooting ... The Unfinished Second Novel" is a stirring, 1,000-plus page testimony to a process Ellison began soon after "Invisible Man" was written.

It is, as the title implies, a process that he was never able to finish. The editors note that Ellison labored over his second novel for more than 40 years. He endured real obstacles, including a fire that destroyed parts of his manuscript in an era before computer backup, and more ethereal ones. Ellison lived in the midst of his own success and sat down to write with, one imagines, something like the weight of the literary world on his shoulders.

The framework of a great novel is certainly here. A black preacher and former musician named Hickman takes in a child whom he calls Bliss. Hickman raises Bliss as a light-skinned black in Georgia, grooming him to be a preacher. But when he grows up, Bliss disappears, resurfacing as Adam Sunraider, a senator from New England who demagogues relentlessly on race. …

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