Of the four major genres of literature--poetry, drama, nonfiction and fiction--it is fiction upon which falls the mix blessing of “history.” David Covin willingly, deftly and brilliantly embraces this oxymoronic mantle in “Princes of the Road,” a novel which, like his “Brown Sky” and “Wimbey’s Corner,” builds on, even as it imaginatively reconstructs, myriad historical traditions within and without African-American and global experiences. As both central moment and metaphor, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—with its memorably drawn lives, times and rhymes that hold us like a spell-- provides a thematic “arch.” Under it the novelist develops numerous sub-arches. And inside these, he ark-eye-textures a delightful, compelling, lovely-deadly, thrilling and suspenseful maze of parallels, paradoxes, intersections, socio-cultural layers, comic relief, comeuppances and reversals of missed fortune.
Under the sub-arch of geography Pullman trains and their “princely” porters meet the countryside, big cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), small towns and the rural world. A geographical sub-sub-arch explores “nature”--natural, supernatural and man-woman’s (princes, would-be lovers, wives, prostitutes--all boiling in loneliness and desire). Other arches envelop and develop, yielding racial space, place and mind: racial flavors, racial attitudes and philosophies, racial psychology, racial hatred, enmity, killings and self-love. “Color,” and the stratification thereof, evolves--devolves or dissolves--in a “colored”/creole race’s effort to build a strong and self-supporting “Negro” world. Scenes of Afro-Judeo-Christian-Capitalist believers, successes and spillages abound. Vivid and electric are words for “Princes of the Road” as major players like porter-tenement owner Deacon Judge and porter-Pullman Company spy (and banker) Ezekiel James Jones get fleshed to the highest power. Supporting characters--be they porters Eliot Timbers (and his wife Phaedra) and Tantamount Stewart, a Sacramento prostitute named “Caramel,” or Atlanta/Harlem man-child Ofer Flagler--are reminiscent (in their roundness) of Charles Dickens’, Ralph Ellison’s and Toni Morrison’s. This omnisciently narrated novel, with its familistic thread (“brotherhood”) intertwining multi-concentric “plots” of ritual ground, ought to be read by all who cherish rich storytelling that is back- and fore-dropped by intricate webbings of history.
Eugene B. Redmond, Poet Laureate of East Saint Louis, Illinois & Founding Editor of Drumvoices Revue