Ralph Ellison redux: unpublished stories

December 22, 1996|By Gregory Kane | Gregory Kane,SUN STAFF

"Flying Home And Other Stories," by Ralph Ellison. Random House. 176 pages. $23

John Callahan, who collected the 13 short stories that appear in this book, included an interesting biographical anecdote in his introduction.

"I blundered into writing, Ellison admitted in a 1961 interview with novelist Richard G. Stern," Callahan writes.

It shows, Ralphie boy, it shows.

Mind you, this volume contains some fine short fiction, the best of which are the stories "In a Strange Country," "King of the Bingo Game" and "Flying Home." Those were written and published in 1944, eight years after Richard Wright urged Ellison to try his hand at writing and, according to Callahan, only a year before Ellison began the eminently superb and immortal "Invisible Man."

Six of the stories have never been published. Callahan found them in a manila folder marked "Early Stories" inside a box under a dining room table at the home of Ellison's widow earlier this year. They have "elusive chronologies," Callahan claims, but were clearly written before Ellison had found his niche as a writer.

"A Party Down at the Square" starts off with promise but soon fizzles. It ends limply and left me wondering not only why Ellison started the story this way, but why he bothered to write it at all. The problem with "Party" may be one of point of view. The tale of the lynching of a black man is told in the first person narrative of a white member of the lynch mob. Writers, the theory goes, should write about what they know. The views of a white member of a lynching party were clearly beyond the purview of the young Ellison.

Callahan found "Hymie's Bull" and "I Did Not Learn Their Names" in the same folder of unpublished stories that contained "Party." Although from the same period, these stories outshine "Party," and for good reason. Ellison is in his element here. He's writing about what he knows: the life of a hobo riding trains through the Southwest. These tales make not only good reading but are valuable history lessons for Americans not familiar with this era - the Depression years of the 1930s.

The "bull" of the "Hymie" story refers to those railroad workers hired to brutalize and toss overboard train-hopping hobos looking for free passage to points around the country. Also told in the first-person narrative - a form at which Ellison had no peer, as "Invisible Man" clearly shows - the author shows early on he is speaking with authority.

"Bulls are pretty bad people to meet if you're a bum. They have head-whipping down to a science and they're always ready to go into action. They know just the places to hit to change a bone into jelly, and they seem to feel just the place to kick you to make your backbone feel like it's going to fold up like the old cellophane cups we used when we were kids. ... But sometimes the bulls get the worst of it, and whenever one is missing at the end of a run and they find him all cut up and bleeding, they start taking all the black boys off the freights."

By the time the readers get to the later stories - "In a Strange Country," "King of the Bingo Game" and "Flying Home" - they might just feel they've accompanied Ellison on his journey from neophyte writer to a master of his craft. It is this journey that makes "Flying Home And Other Stories" well worth the read.

Gregory Kane has been a columnist at The Baltimore Sun since September. Before that, Kane, who grew up in West Baltimore, worked as a police reporter at The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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