Published posthumously, this collection of Ralph Ellison's stories is packaged as a literary event -- early writings that at long last illuminate the genius of "Invisible Man." The black-and-white cover photo of a pensive Ellison and the ponderous introduction by John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor, create an aura of literary solemnity. Unfortunately, Callahan's worshipful essay offers no revelations. Instead, he dutifully recounts the "Eureka!" moment when Ellison's widow pointed under the dining room table to six unpublished stories by her late husband.
All this myth-making is a turn-off, since it implies that no one would read this book if it weren't historically important. Callahan's hushed tone is especially annoying given the irreverence and wit of Ellison's 13 stories. In "That I Had the Wings," a boy named Riley is playfully singing about what he'd do if he were president (eat chocolate bars and swing on the White House gates). When his aunt scolds him, asking what white folks would say about a child who talked of being president, Riley thinks: "It was always God, or the white folks."
Although Ellison's vignettes, which mostly tell of childhood memories and riding the rails, are sometimes slight, they're also gracefully written and insightful. The true power of the collection, however, resides in the first and last stories -- "A Party Down at the Square" and "Flying Home" -- which neatly frame Ellison's views on race and identity. "A Party Down at the Square" is narrated by a white boy who witnesses his uncle's friends set fire to a black man. The narrator is literally sickened by the spectacle, but his newfound empathy is tempered by the vastness of the racial divide: "Every time I eat barbecue I'll remember that nigger. His back was just like a barbecued hog."
In "Flying Home," Ellison revisits and reverses the theme. This time around, the hero is an injured pilot from the Negro air school at Tuskegee who sees himself through white eyes. For him, "humiliation was when you could never be simply yourself; when you were always a part of this old black ignorant man. Sure, he's all right. Nice and kind and helpful. But he's not you." That the pilot prefigures Ellison's invisible man may be historically noteworthy, but the story is far more than a literary curio. "Flying Home" is sad and strange and utterly original.