Oklahoma City-born Ralph Ellison left an indelible stamp on the literary world with the 1952 release of his debut novel, “Invisible Man.” The work won him the National Book Award the following year, and has been a staple of bookshelves and reading lists ever since.
After that, Ellison’s output was “¦ well, mostly invisible. It didn’t help that a 1967 house fire consumed more than 300 pages of his second novel, “Juneteenth.”
Now, nearly 16 years after his death, that follow-up is available in a fuller version, with Modern Library’s publication of “Three Days Before the Shooting”¦: The Unfinished Second Novel.” At 1,136 pages, the book presents Ellison’s sophomore effort in the most complete form the world will see. (“Juneteenth” was a mere 400-page extract.)
“Ellison began this around the time he was finishing ‘Invisible Man,’ and kept on writing until a month before his death in 1994,” said Adam Bradley, who coedited the book with his former college professor, John F. Callahan, “A majority of Ellison’s life, in fact, was spent in one form or fashion working on this novel.”
According to Callahan, also the literary executor of Ellison’s estate, the reason the novel never was completed in its four-decade gestation cannot be blamed on writer’s block.
“We can wipe that one off the blackboard,” he said. “If anything, he had the opposite. He wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. He loved to play, and writing was his play. It was a matter of revision and structure and form.”
Having been “very close friends” with the author since the late ’70s, Callahan was called upon shortly after Ellison’s death in 1994 to help with what was left behind. Turns out, that amounted to a “whole trove” of unpublished writings.
“The second novel was the fishbone that stuck in our throats for the longest time, and Ralph’s for 40 years,” said Callahan, who began sorting through typewritten pages, computer printouts and discs to see what was there.
To assist him, he tapped a student he knew he could trust: Bradley. Performing the “rote work” of photocopying and digging up sources struck Bradley as “an amazing opportunity to look through these printouts, arrayed in this literary, jigsaw-puzzle style.”
“The backstory is similar to the front story,” Callahan said of their decade-and-a-half assembly process.
“Were we on this stuff every day for 15 years? No. Was Ralph on his second novel every day for 40 years? No. There’s fits and starts here. There’d be waves. A hell of a lot of it was scut work ” absolute scut work. We’d be at this on and off, inching along, tortoise-like.”
The two crafted a handful of essays and other supplemental material for “Three Days,” as well as uncovered short stories not even Ellison’s wife knew existed.
But one thing couldn’t be located.
“I was looking for the missing chunks from the novel that would bring it all together,” said Callahan, who teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. “I didn’t find them.”
With large portions set in Oklahoma City, “Three Days” is an epic work that revisits the racial themes of “Invisible Man.” Alonzo Hickman is an African-American preacher who raises Adam Sunraider, a boy of indeterminate race who becomes a senator. Hickman attempts to save Sunraider from assassination, by Sunraider’s own son.
Callahan said the story unfolds in four narratives, with some more polished and complete than others, which he doesn’t view as a negative.
“The hypothetical (of a finished novel) is much, much less interesting than what we have. Once the reader yields himself or herself to what’s here, I think the reader is going to get more intrigued,” he said. “Look, this is not the kind of book you’re going to start on Friday night and finish it up before brunch on Sunday. You’re going to dip into it, and out, like friends who live far away from each other, but have intense conversations when they do talk.”
Bradley, who now is a professor himself at the University of Colorado at Boulder, agrees.
“It’s certainly a unique opportunity for readers to get a glimpse into the process of a writer of creative fiction, particularly a literary master like Ellison,” Bradley said. “What the book demands is a kind of participatory arrangement on the part of the reader, almost being a kind of co-creator of the fiction. In that way, it’s an opportunity as much as it is a challenge.”
Ralph Ellison right stands with friend John F. Callahan.