“Even ghosts can teach us a thing or two,” the author Randall Kenan wrote in an essay published just last month about the Confederate monuments falling all over the South that was the center of his life and his life’s work. I’ve thought about that line a lot the past few days, while revisiting Kenan’s books. We’re living in a haunted time, a time in which more and more ghosts seem to float through our lives every day, and no writer was better situated to tell truths about this world than Randall Kenan.
Kenan, who was 57, was found dead in his home in Hillsborough, North Carolina, late last week. Raised in rural Duplin County in eastern North Carolina, a place where his family had deep roots—the county seat is Kenansville—Kenan attended college in Chapel Hill and then left for New York City. There he worked for four years at Knopf, the highest of high-toned literary publishers, while working on the earthy tales that would make up his 1989 debut novel, A Visitation of Spirits, and his collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992.
Those tales were the template for the fiction he would write the rest of his career: stories set in the thinly veiled eastern Carolina town of Tims Creek, imbued with Southern folkways and an eye on the long shadow of history. Ghosts abound in his work, starting with the very first story in the collection, “Clarence and the Dead,” in which a 3-year-old boy sends Tims Creek into an uproar when he begins delivering messages from their dead relatives, not always kind ones: “Your mama says Joe Hattan is stepping out on you with that strumpet Viola Stokes.” The title story, a metafictional masterpiece of academic fakery complete with false footnotes and references to future, unwritten Randall Kenan works, concerns the history of Snatchit, a community of escaped and rebelled enslaved people deep in the swamps, and culminates in, essentially, a zombie uprising led by an evil preacher who raises the dead of Snatchit in his service. “The wicked they stayed, and well, how do you stop a dead man?” he writes. “They ran into the houses of people they hated the most and beat the shit out of them.”
Like his childhood in Duplin County, Kenan’s time in New York and his life as a gay man were reflected his fiction as well. His stories often explored the intersection of queer life and rural tradition. In one, a Tims Creek woman mourning the death of her grandson up north invites his white lover to visit her in an attempt to learn more about the boy who so determinedly took himself away from the place where he grew up. “How curious the world had become,” she thinks, “that she would be asking a white man to exonerate her in the eyes of her own grandson.”
Critics have compared Tims Creek to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and it’s true that Kenan’s grasp of his lightly fictionalized home’s history, geography, and culture was as keen as Faulkner’s. Kenan’s Tims Creek was Black, of course, populated mostly by the descendants of those runaways and rebels in Snatchit and other formerly enslaved people. You might argue that Kenan’s treatment of Tims Creek’s white characters is more thoughtful and complex than Faulkner’s treatment of his Black characters. I think particularly of Dean Williams in the shattering story “Run, Mourner, Run,” a beautiful boy with “eyes that could give a bull a hard-on.” Dean knows that wealthy Percy Terrell, son of the county’s most prominent white family, sees him as “nothing more than poor white trash: a sweet-faced, dark-haired faggot with a broken-down Ford Torino.” But Percy orders him to seduce Tims Creek’s richest Black man, and Dean, desperate for a way out, follows his lead. The investigation of power, wealth, lust, and love that ensues is a small masterpiece of Southern literature.
The difference between Tims Creek and Yoknapatawpha, of course, is that Faulkner explored Yoknapatawpha in a dozen novels and scores of stories, while after 1992, Kenan published several excellent nonfiction books but no more fiction—until last month, when a new collection, If I Had Two Wings, appeared. I don’t know why Kenan didn’t write more. In the 1990s, he returned to North Carolina, eventually becoming, by all accounts, a wonderful teacher at his (and my) alma mater, and if my own experience with him is any guide, he devoted a lot of time doing kindnesses for students, former students, and anyone who asked. The 10 stories in the new collection are as rich and provocative and funny as the ones that came before; I particularly liked a tall tale about a Tims Creek plumber who, on a trip to New York with his wife, somehow ends up in Billy Idol’s entourage. Horrible Percy Terrell returns, in a story that explores with a keen eye and true generosity a white man beginning to confront the lies and thievery of his family’s past.
And one story in particular caught my eye. It doesn’t seem autobiographical, exactly, but it does feature a narrator named Randall who comes back to North Carolina from a life in New York publishing to launch a regional cooking magazine. (Kenan was passionately interested in Southern foodways and edited the terrific collection The Carolina Table: North Carolina Writers on Food, which came out in 2016.) Randall’s 200-year-old restored farmhouse turns out to have once been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and soon the man comes face to face with, yes, ghosts. Some are horrifying and some are mystifying and some are friendly, and though the haunting drives his boyfriend away, Randall takes it in stride. “Do ghosts eat?” he wonders, and, just in case, he makes breakfast for two.