Picks and Pans Review: Juneteenth

updated 06/21/1999 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/21/1999 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ralph Ellison

When Ralph Ellison died in 1994, he left unfinished the novel he had been working on for 40 years, the successor to 1952's classic Invisible Man. He also left a devoted literary executor, John F. Callahan, who has painstakingly edited and assembled Ellison's manuscript. The powerfully written Juneteenth (the title refers to the date in 1865 on which Union soldiers landed in Texas with the news that the Civil War and slavery were over) begins in the 1950s, when a rabble-rousing, racist senator, Adam Sunraider, is shot on the Senate floor. Observing from the gallery is a preacher, Rev. Alonzo Hickman. When Hickman is summoned to the wounded politician's bedside, the two men begin an operatic literary duet touching on their shared personal history—Hickman raised Sunraider, who assisted the preacher on the revival circuit—as well as larger themes of race and identity, violence, truth and fraud.

Ellison wanted his book to be "on the borderline between folk poetry and religious rhetoric," and he succeeds. Juneteenth combines the beauty of a lyric poem with the soaring force of a sermon. (Random House, $25)

Bottom Line: Powerful and poetic achievement

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