Pushkin and the Queen of Spades

by Alice Randall

Published by Houghton Mifflin

320 pages, 2004

Buy it online




It Signifies

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Sometimes in Pushkin and the Queen of Spades you feel as though you're looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock, or listening to a piece of a music by Chopin. You experience brilliant flashes of cacophony. And, as with that artist and that composer, it's not until the final stanza is read -- the final note is played, the painting is savored end-to-end -- that you feel the power of the whole. Beautifully-executed and seemingly unrelated bits coalesce to present a perfect finished piece. And I don't use perfect lightly here: Had I the power to alter Pushkin and the Queen on Spades, I wouldn't change a thing. It is just right as it sits. Perfect. There, I've said it again.

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is a difficult book to do justice to in description. Without Randall's power and poise, the plot sounds trite when laid out: the kind of dark chick lit formerly favored by Oprah. What's difficult to convey is the mix Randall has created here. There's so much more to Pushkin and the Queen of Spades than story. And while the plot of the book is deeply compelling, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades also includes philosophizing and intellectualizing on a deliciously eloquent scale.

I saw it in so many eyes. I was a baby having a baby, a burden to the state, worthlessness breeding worthlessness. I looked for solace close at hand. I took my already needy love of Pushkin and made a discipline of it. I tied my stereotypical fat pregnant ass to an identity that exploded stereotypes -- Russian scholar. I was afraid there wasn't enough high culture to balance out all my lowness. ... I went crawling after that Harvard honors degree to keep myself from slipping back into the pit of worthlessness from which I had been expelled at birth.

The book is narrated by Windsor, a 43-year-old professor of Afro-Russian literature.

My name is Windsor Armstrong.

Being a man of modest means, powerful imagination, and substantial wisdom, [my father] understood that the name he chose for his child would be a significant portion, perhaps the whole, of his daughter's dowry. I was trying to be like my father when I named you Pushkin.

She's writing to her son, Pushkin X -- born when Windsor was an 18-year-old undergrad at Harvard and named for "the best black brain and the fiercest black heart." Pushkin X is a professional football player. "And now," Randall writes near the book's opening, "Pushkin is marrying a white Russian lap dancer and insists on knowing who his daddy is." He is insisting so starkly, Windsor's invitation to her beloved son's wedding has been rescinded. "Pushkin's enormous sable hand reached across a table and snatched it back."

Why won't he simply accept the obvious? I was his daddy and his mama. Why won't he let it be like that? And if he can't let his daddy be me, why can't he let his daddy be W.E.B. [DuBois] or Pushkin or Malcolm? If I swallowed his daddy's sins, why won't he swallow my lie? Part of the answer has to be he doesn't know how much sin and sorrow I had to swallow to bring him to life. That's nobody's fault but my own.

The narrative becomes a letter to Pushkin, visiting all of Windsor's secrets, her sorrows, sins and the roots of her huge love for her son.

If you insist on the truth of your beginning, how do we get to any kind of happy ending? I never knew the answer to that, never figured any answer but to cheat, to lie about the beginning. Now you won't let me cheat. You take away the win we have almost achieved and say, Play the game again with a clean whole deck. I say, There are no clean whole decks.

I will do what I have always done for you. Take the next step, ignoring the likelihood of failure. We are deep in the shit of truth.

In telling Windsor's story, Randall takes us to Detroit when it was Motown, to D.C. at the height of the Civil Rights movement, to St. Petersberg during Pushkin X's childhood and to contemporary Nashville where Windsor is a tenured professor at Vanderbilt. We visit Windsor's childhood, as well as Pushkin's, and the choices the mother made in order to get the child to where she thought he was going. Which was not, incidentally, football.

Along the way, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades resonates. It signifies. Taking on the challenges of being a good mother when your own examples were bad; tackling issues of race and interrace, the evolution of cultures and, as a sort of weird but beautiful bonus, the book includes a new version of Pushkin's (the poet, not the character) unfinished novella, The Negro of Czar Peter the Great, ostensibly written by Windsor, but of course penned by Randall, recreated as a rap poem with a happy ending.

It's tempting -- and I know some reviewers will give in to the temptation -- to call Alice Randall -- author of The Wind Done Gone -- one of the most important black voices to emerge in the United States over the last several years. That statement, while true, is not true enough. Randall understands the stuff of which stories are made. She knows how to build characters we care about. She knows how to impart import without hurting our heads or our enjoyment. Randall's strong, clear, important voice doesn't require that qualification of color. I suspect that author would appreciate the distinction. I know Windsor Armstrong would. | April 2004

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.