September 4, 2020
Hail & Farewell, Randall Kenan
by Dennis Johnson
Brooklyn, September 3, 2020 — Melville House is sorry to announce the passing of our friend and author Randall Kenan, who died on August 28th at the age of 57. Kenan, who had a stroke a few years ago and suffered from heart problems, died at his home in Hillsborough, N.C., of an apparent heart attack.
Randall will most likely be most remembered for his remarkable fiction — his first book, the novel A Visitation of the Spirits (1988), and its follow-up, the story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), were both ecstatically reviewed and won numerous awards.
But less widely known about Randall was that he was a James Baldwin expert, and so when we approached him about writing a kind of update on Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time to mark the book’s 45th anniversary, Randall treated us like long lost friends.
The result, The Fire Next Time, was a beautiful and moving book. Using the Baldwin book as a template, Randall began with an essay about his own youth, as Baldwin had done. Except Randall was not a gay, black child-preacher in New York, but a gay, black kid brought up by a spinster aunt in the rural South.
Randall was a soft-spoken guy and with a certain humbleness about him that made it seem to his editor at Melville House that he didn’t like talking about himself. So at first it seemed difficult for him to tell his own story. But as all writers know, writing when it’s hardest, is writing with the chance of being best. And of course Randall knew that, and the power of the biographical set-up — it left few dry-eyed — simply detonated the second half of the book, about his adult observations of racism in George W. Bush’s America.
Serious stuff, of course, but our best memory of Randall is a happy man coming to New York to launch his book at the old Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem. It was a hot day and he was grinning and mopping his forehead as he stared at the large crowd that had come to see him. He gave a beautiful reading — he was a big fellow with a strong voice — and then waded into a Q&A that went on for a good long time. There were a rather regal elderly lady there who said she’d known Baldwin and Randall engaged with her respectfully. He never quite shook his smile, nor the aspect of being surprised at the attention.
An old friend of Randall’s — Sheila Anderson, who was the overnight deejay at jazz radio station WGBO — surprised him at the event, and afterwards joined Randall and the publishers for ribs at a nearby soul food kitchen. Anderson had worked with Randall years before at Random House (Randall had started there at RH imprint Knopf, as a receptionist, before moving up the ladder to editing). It was deep in the past but both had happy memories.
As we have now of him. Randall published his final book, If I Had Two Wings, a story collection, with another great indie press, Norton, just three weeks before his death, so his work lives on, as does his great spirit. Thank you for taking a flyer with us, Randall.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives