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Reed, Ishmael

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1938-    ) US poet, playwright and author, who emerged in the 1960s as a central representative of the New Black Aesthetic movement, and a figure controversial to the Black critical establishment from the publication of his first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), a powerful Satire in which America is visualized as the digestive system of a cannibal used-car salesman. Yellow-Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), a surreal Western with sf-like anachronisms (including a helicopter-flying Native American from pre-helicopter days), features a conjuror known as the Loop Garou Kid [for Trickster see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] (see also Werewolf); trickster figures reappear frequently in Reed's work. Of his early works, Mumbo Jumbo (1972) remains the best-known, a narrative irradiated and pock-marked by a kitchen-sink "movement" of his invention, a combination of surreal satire and Magic-Realist fantasy he called Neo-HooDoo. The central plot revolves around a search for the Secret Masters cabal behind a Harlem-based viral epidemic – what one might almost call a beneficial Pandemic – called Jes Grew, which forces American to dance: and, it may be, gain some rootedness in the reality of the whole of America; there are moments (or riffs) that hint at Alternate History readings. More importantly, Mumbo Jumbo has been seen as a shaping text in the evolution of Afrofuturism.

Further such tales include The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974) and Flight to Canada (1975), the latter being a savage spoof set in the contemporary world. In several of these books grotesquely overelaborated thriller plots carry the burden of the flamboyant text. A similar exorbitance and similar plots shape his sf sequence, the Nance Saturday series, beginning with The Terrible Twos (1982), and featuring a bemused detective named Nance Saturday. In the first of these sad and rather savage Near-Future satires the US President is a male model with an IQ of 55; the second, The Terrible Threes (1989), is a Dystopian vision of the late 1990s, seen as a continuation of the Reagan years, much darkened; the melancholy hijinks of The Terrible Fours (2021) are haunted by Climate Change. Critics have seen Reed's use of humour as an attempt to distract attention from important social issues and his suspicion of Black Feminists as less than persuasive; by contrast, Thomas Pynchon and other authors of contemporary interest have cited Reed as an exemplary writer: contrarian, copious, necessary. [JC/CAJ]

Ishmael Scott Reed

born Chattanooga, Tennessee: 22 February 1938

works (selected)


Nance Saturday

  • The Terrible Twos (New York: St Martin's Press, 1982) [Nance Saturday: hb/Eric Fowler]
  • The Terrible Threes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989) [Nance Saturday: hb/]
  • The Terrible Fours (Montreal, Quebec: Baraka Books of Montreal, 2021) [Nance Saturday: pb/Evany Zirul]

individual titles



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