Jeffrey Renard Allen

A graduate of the doctorate program in creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago,  Dr. Jeffrey Renard Allen is the author of Harbors and Spirits (Moyer Bell, 1999), a collection of poems, and the novel Rails Under My Back (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), which won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for Fiction. His other writing awards include: The 21st Century Award Chicago Public Library, The John Farrar Fellow - Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference 2001 and The P.E.N Discovery Prize-1989.  A writer who believes in the power of teaching, he works at Queens College, the New School for Social Research, and is presently a fellow at the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers.


The New York Times Book Review, Stephen Donadio
Allen's prose is intense, concentrated. His language, which ranges from the delicately lyrical to the aggressively vulgar, demonstrates extraordinary poise.

San Francisco Chronicle
"Big, ambitious, picaresque, and beautiful, a book that demands of the reader as much as it gives in return."

From Kirkus Reviews
A powerful first novel that uses the railroad as a complex metaphorof hopeful reunion but also of separation and dispersalin telling the multi-generational stories of two closely related black American families. Brothers John and Lucius (``Lucifer'') Jones marry sisters Gracie and Sheila McShan, and both couples settle in an unnamed fictional big city that's an imaginative amalgam of New York and Chicago. In a vigorous, jazzy, stop-and-start style that deftly mixes crisp declarative sentences with fragmented dialogue and vigorous expostulations (and that intercuts present and past scenes with brief spasmodic flashbacks), Allen dramatizes both the sources (their families' histories) and the consequences (their children's fates) of the separate paths the Jones brothers follow (``Lucifer and John, brothers in the skin, but no closeness''). The novel both begins and comes to a climax with the streetwise ``business'' that engulfs Gracie and John's embittered teenaged son Jesus, whose temperament contrasts (as do his father's and uncle's) revealingly with that of his cousin Hatch, a soulful youngster bent on becoming a blues musician. The bulk of the story stretches forward and backward (often without helpful transitions, but always bursting quickly into vivid clarity) to focus on various members of the two families' several generations. Most compelling are: stern matriarch Lulu Mae McShan; hardworking, stoical Sheila and religion-bound Gracie; Sheila's daughter ``Porsha'' (Portia), who seeks escape from the city's snares and delusions in a commercial world of ``beauty'' and in her headlong affair with a handsome stud significantly nicknamed ``Deathrow''; and the flickering figure of John Jones, a troubled Vietnam vet and wanderer who cannot remain faithful to his wife or their kinwith devastating results memorably shown in a long, harrowing denouement. An exciting and rewarding successor to the legacy of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Allen worked eight years on this novel, and the result is a very impressive creation: the work of an unusually gifted, disciplined, and more than promising writer.