The Portable Promised Land
By Touré
Published by Little Brown & Company 
July 2002; 0316666432; 304 pages

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The Portable Promised Land by ToureTHE STEVIEWONDERMOBILE

Every day downtown Soul City saw Huggy Bear Jackson smooth by in that pristine money-green 1983 Cadillac Cutlass Supreme custom convertible with gold rims, neon-green lights underneath, and a post-state-of-the-art Harmon Kardon system with sixteen speakers, wireless remote, thirty-disc changer, and the clearest sound imaginable. If during the recording of the song the guitarist had plucked the wrong string, he could hear it. If someone had coughed in the control room, he could hear it. If the singers were thinking, he could hear it. Everyone in Soul City waved as he crept slowly by, cruising at fifteen miles an hour or less, passed by joggers, and as he turtled into the distance, people said with awe and condescension, "There goes the Steviewondermobile."

Yes, Huggy Bear's ride elicited an encyclopedia of emotions because, despite an eye-paining beauty that would've put the vehicle directly into the African-American Aesthetics Hall of Fame, there were significant problems with the ride.

First off, he drove slowly because he had to. No matter how long and hard he pressed the gas the thing would not go above twenty-five miles an hour. Also, the electrical system was so taxed by the sound system that there were brownouts when the car would only go ten or fifteen miles an hour, and blackouts where the car would just stop cold, maybe right in the middle of Freedom Ave or Funky Boulevard. And that $25,000 sound system only played songs by Stevie Wonder. He'd had it built like that. There was a special sensor they sold at Soul City Systems and when you put in a non-Stevie record it was promptly spit out. He didn't know if records that Stevie had written and not performed or records such as "We Are the World" on which Stevie had had a tiny part would work. He didn't ask and he never tried.

 

The ride had attained its vehicular elegance and superior sound because Huggy Bear had put a bank-draining amount of cash into it. It had massive problems because he was very picky about what he spent his money on. If the carburetor was falling apart and needed only $600 to be like new and Dolemite Jones from Soul City Systems called and said he had a new subwoofer, the best ever made, just $2,000, you can guess what he chose to do. Huggy Bear was what your momma would call "nigga-rich." Someone with, say, a multithousand-dollar neck chain and nothing in the bank. Someone with a hot Lexus who lives with they moms.

So he cruised with Stevie every day. Stevie fit every mood. If he felt upbeat and wanted to groove, he pushed button number one and Stevie preached: "Very supa-stish-uuus..." If he felt sad it was number seventeen: "Lately I have had the strangest feel-ing...." When he had his sweet, late mother on his mind he soothed her memory with number twelve: "You are the sunshine of my life..." When thinking politics, number seventythree: "Living for the City." Every June first, as the sun sang out and the days got hot, number 129: "Ma cher-ee a-mour..." When he started a new relationship, number ninety-seven: "Send her your love...." Yes, he loved Stevie's entire catalog, even the 80s shlock like Jungle Fever, loved it with the unquestioning devotion the faithful reserve for their God. Huggy Bear was a devout Stevie-ite. To him Stevie was a wise, gifted, mystical being, most definitely from another planet and of another consciousness, part eternal child, part social crusader, part sappy sentimentalist, an unabashed lover of God and women and all things sweet and just. When he cruised down Freedom Ave blasting Stevie, he was taking lessons on life. He was meditating. He was praying.

Each Sunday morning Huggy Bear rose with the sun to wash, wax, buff, and pamper his cathedral on wheels. He walked to the gas station to fill his portable can (walking ended up being faster). And then he sat and chose the day's album, carefully matching it with his mood, spending as much time on this as many women take to get dressed for a big night. When he found the perfect album he laid back, way back, and placed the first finger of his right hand on the bottom of the wheel so that his hand rested between his legs (there was something phallic about it, but he chose not to follow that line of thought). Then he eased away from the curb and cruised into downtown Soul City and onto Freedom Ave, looking for his homeboys Mojo Johnson, Boozoo, and Groovy Lou. They were all Stevie-ites and they all had they own little chapels. Together they would turtle down Freedom Ave, all four rides blasting the same Stevie song at the same time.

It was essential to ride down Freedom Ave in a pack on a Soul City Sunday afternoon because on a Soul City Sunday afternoon Freedom Ave was awash in music. Everyone in Soul City was devout, but not everyone was a Stevie-ite. At last count there were at least twenty religions in Soul City besides Stevieism: Milesism, Marleyites, Coltranity, the Sly Stonish, the Ellingtonians, Michael Jacksonism, Wu-Tangity, Princian, Rakimism, Mingusity, Nina Simonian, P-Funkist, James Brownism, Billie Holidayites, Monkist, Hendrixity, the Jiggas, the Arethites, Satchmoian, Barry Whiters, and Gayeity. Soul City was a place where God entered through the speakers and love was measured in decibels.

So Huggy Bear smoothed down Freedom Ave looking for his crew. He passed Hype Jackson, DJ Cucumber Slice, and Reverend Hallelujah Jones, passed the barbershop, the rib shack, the Phat Farm, the Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, the Baptist church, the weave spot, the Drive-Thru Liquor Store, passed Cadillac Jackson talking to Dr. Noble Truette, chief planner and architect of Soul City, and passed Fulcrum Negro's Certified Authentic Negrified Artifacts, a strange little shop, more like an open closet really, filled with his unique antiques: a pair of Bojangles dancin shoes, a guitar played by Robert Johnson, a sax that belonged to Bird, some of Jacob Lawrence's paintbrushes, Sugar Ray Robinson's gloves, a Richard Pryor crack pipe, and all sorts of things from slavery, including actual chains, whips, and mouth bits, as well as Harriet Tubman's running shoes, Frederick Douglass's comb, and Nat Turner's Bible. Purportedly, the stuff had magic residue left over by the Gods who'd handled them, but no one ever found out because Fulcrum Negro refused to sell anything to anyone, even if they had more than ample money.

The streets were more crowded than normal because the Soul City Summertime Fair was on. There was free food, step shows, dominoes, spades, and a shit-talkin clown with a small pillow for a nose who walked up and dissed you, playfully but pointedly, persistently talking about your clothes, your ears, and your momma until you buried a stiff fist right in that big old honker. Then he laughed and thanked you and walked away. And then there were the contests everyone loved. The Neck- Rolling Contest in which contestants were judged on how fast they could whip their head around, how wide of a circle they could make, and how many consecutive 360s they could pull off. Contests for sexiest lip-licker, most ornate Jesus piece, best pimp stroll, who could keep a hat on their head while cocked at the sharpest angle, and everyone's favorite, the Nut-Grabbing Contest, a slow-motion Negrified marathon really, wherein contestants simply hold their nuts as long as possible. The city record holder, Emperor Jones, had stood there holding his nuts for six days, fourteen hours, and twenty-eight minutes straight. He slept standing up, his right hand securely gripping his nuts. Incredible. Sadly, this was the first year in many that there would be no CPT Contest because the Summertime Fair organizers had finally given in to reason: despite immense anticipation each year, the contest never ever really got off the ground because none of the contestants ever arrived before the contest was canceled.

Huggy Bear finally found his crew hanging out in front of Peppermint Frazier, the twenty-four-hour ice-cream and hotwing spot, talking to a few guys from an underground Tupac cult. Mojo, Boozoo, and Groovy Lou jumped in their rides, calibrated their stereos to today's sermon, Songs in the Key of Life, and set their cruise control to eighteen miles an hour. Then all four of them turtled down Freedom Ave parade style, a small cruising cumulus cloud of sound, boombapping the block with a quadruply quadraphonic Soul City Sunday afternoon blast of the master blaster.

But at the corner of Freedom and Rhythm, as they got to "Sir Duke," the Steviewondermobile slowed and the sound began to die. The gang pulled to the side of Freedom and cracked the hood. Yet another battery dead. Mojo drove off to Soul City Motors to pick up a new one. But for ten minutes the Steviewondermobile would be without sound. Tragedy? Huggy Bear never broke a sweat. He was prepared. He'd had Dolemite put in an emergency backup battery that was connected only to the sound system. He could boom the system even when the car wouldn't start. Did he know that if the backup battery was connected to the electrical system instead of the sound system that he could've kept on driving? Sure he did. But it was Huggy Bear's world and in Huggy Bear's world the music could never die. So he sat in the Steviewondermobile, stuck at the corner of Freedom and Rhythm, chilling with Groovy Lou and Boozoo to the soaring sounds of Stevie's seamless soul stew and the world he saw with his so wonderfully clear inner vision.

Copyright 2002 Touré
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

This inspired collection of stories is cause for celebration. In dazzling language and startling images, Touré invents a place called Soul City, America's most miraculous metropolis. In an astonishing array of voices and styles, The Portable Promised Land celebrates the most soulful corners of America, while questioning the very nature of Blackness.

Among Touré's unforgettable characters are the Right Revren Daddy Love, Brooklyn's favorite sexually wayward preacher ("A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love"), a boy with magic Air Jordans that let him fly above the ball court ("Falcon Malone Can Fly No Mo"), a child who can disappear into Romare Bearden paintings ("Solomon's Big Day: A Children's Story"), mystified parents who discover their beloved little boy has somehow turned into a little Black Sambo ("The Sambomorphosis"), and Huggy Bear Jackson, whose 1983 Cadillac Cutlass Supreme custom convertible's supernatural stereo plays only Stevie Wonder songs ("The Steviewondermobile").

With a fearlessness and style that recalls the work of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, Touré captures, through lyrical rhythms and relentless inventiveness, an America where magic can happen and Black is beautiful. The Portable Promised Land marks the entrance of a new and wildly compelling voice to American fiction.

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Author

ToureTouré, born in Boston, went to a New England prep school, and then "did time at an American university." He moved to New York City in 1992 and began to write. He was the first African American staff writer at Rolling Stone and is now a Contributing Editor there, the author of cover stories on Lauryn Hill, DMX, N' Sync, and Alicia Keys. He also writes for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Playboy, the Village Voice, Vibe, and Tennis Magazine. In 1996 he went to Columbia University's graduate creative writing program for a year and, thanks to a class by Stephen Koch, began writing fiction. His first piece was the story of Sugar Lips Shinehot, a 1940s Harlem saxophonist who loses his ability to see white people. In the years following Columbia he appeared in The Best American Essays of 1999 and The Best American Sportswriting of 2001.

Touré is his real name, the name his mother gave him when he was born, the name his parents consciously chose for him. The last name was something that came automatically, like fries with a burger, thus it wasn't something that really meant anything to him. And plus, Touré is a last name in Africa—they laughed at him there, Silly American. Touré ain't no first name. It's kinda like a Bostonian named Kennedy. But in the one-namedness there's a reference to the dislocation implicit in the African-American family name and a reach back to the unknown last names of Africa. His next book, Soul City, a novel that tells the full story of America's most miraculous metropolis, is nearly done.

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