Pushkin and the Queen of Spades
by Alice Randall
(Houghton Mifflin: New York) $24/hardcover.
It's hard to fathom that any American mother could be mortified by having a son in the NFL -- not just a player, but also a virtuoso dubbed "the phenom" by his admirers. In the national religion of success that unties all races and sects, who questions the means when the ends are so putatively adored?
Windsor Armstrong, that's who.
Alice Randall's second novel, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades tells the story of a 43-year-old Harvard-educated Fulbright scholar and self-identified "black bohemian" who sees her son's decision to play football as a confirmation of the vulgar black male stereotype she raised him to reject. The mother-and-child discord is hardly soothed when Pushkin X (named after the Russian poet and Malcolm X, respectively) informs her that he intends to marry a Russian lap dancer.
Need we mention that she's a white Russian?
The daughter of a Detroit gangster and an ice bitch of a mother who "didn't believe in black," Windsor's upbringing was an ideal brew for cultural schizophrenia. And it wasn't exactly stabilized after Windsor was impregnated via rape before her freshman year at Harvard. However, Randall's protagonist has made more than a pleasant life for herself as professor of Afro-Russian literature at Vanderbilt University.
In Windsor, Randall has crafted a hilarious snob of a protagonist whose arrogance and intellectual heft serve to shield her from Pushkin and his haunting question about the identity of his father. Randall is adept at rendering the lyrical wit of charged conversations and Windsor specializes in waxing indignant:
"Professors of Russian literature do not spawn football players. Their sons do not marry lap dancers."
A name was made for Randall a few years ago when the Margaret Mitchell estate tried to suppress the publication of her Gone With the Wind parody The Wind Done Gone. While the book received more publicity than praise, Pushkin confirms that she's indeed a writer. Not that this effort is without flaws. Its central question of whether Windsor will accept her son's decisions is a lot more compelling than the rambling, and often ponderous, back story of her own childhood.
Nevertheless, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is fresh and original. Allusions to Othello follow allusions to Du Bois and, er, Tupac. You might have known Gone With the Wind, but this is a new story, and a new author, for a different generation of black mothers and sons.
-- John Dicker