Three Days Before the Shooting…The Unfinished Second Novel (Random House, 1,136 pages, $50), by Ralph Ellison, edited by Drs. John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley: For writers, the trouble with writing a great – or, shoot, even a good or slightly better-than-average first novel – is something at once both nebulous and stark: your second novel.
Now imagine you’re Ralph Ellison. Your first novel, Invisible Man, isn’t just great, it’s iconic. Commercially successful, critically acclaimed and, you could argue pretty credibly, darned near perfect. Where do you even begin?
As it turns out, beginning wasn’t Ellison’s problem. Three Days Before the Shooting…The Unfinished Second Novel is a stirring, 1,000-plus page testimony to a process Ellison began soon after Invisible Man was written.
It is, as the title implies, a process that he was never able to finish. The editors note that Ellison labored over his second novel for more than 40 years. He endured real obstacles, including a fire that destroyed parts of his manuscript in an era before computer backup, and more ethereal ones. Ellison lived in the midst of his own success and sat down to write with, one imagines, something like the weight of the literary world on his shoulders.
The framework of a great novel is certainly here. A Black preacher and former musician named Hickman takes in a child whom he calls Bliss. Hickman raises Bliss as a light-skinned Black in Georgia, grooming him to be a preacher. But when he grows up, Bliss disappears, resurfacing as Adam Sunraider, a senator from New England who demagogues relentlessly on race. A third character named Severen, who was also abandoned as a child, targets the hypocritical Sunraider.
This is a deeply complex, even epic, story. And it’s rendered as majestically as you would expect from Ellison. Those who want a traditional read, however, might be dissuaded by the book’s length and what is in essence its lack of filter. (Those turned off might be better off spending less and picking up Juneteenth, an extraction of the work showcased here and published in 1999.)
What some might see as a fault, though, is also one of the book’s gifts. Three Days offers manifold insights into Ellison, his writing process and his decisions as a writer. As an unfinished work, this is as much a quasi-primary source document as it is entertainment.
That said, it works as both. That’s a tribute both to the editing of Callahan, the executor of Ellison’s literary estate, and Bradley, as well as the command of Ellison, who even in draft form displays irreplaceable gifts.
What’s more, Three Days may be a lot closer to what Ellison envisioned than the more commercially palatable Juneteenth. That should certainly count for something.
Though lengthy, Three Days‘ embraces the heft and sweep that made Invisible Man such a standout. The sprawl of Ellison’s vision is surely one of his gifts as a writer, and even if death made it impossible to package this perfectly, it should be embraced nonetheless.