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Joker's wild 

It's hard to fathom that any American mother could be mortified by a son playing in the NFL. Not just a player but a virtuoso dubbed "the phenom" by his admirers. In the national religion of success that unites 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 professor of Afro-Russian literature 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) informs her that he intends to marry a white Russian lap dancer.

The daughter of a Detroit gangster and an ice bitch of a mother who "didn't believe in black," Windsor was raised in an ideal brew for cultural schizophrenia. That Pushkin was conceived in a rape does nothing to improve her relationship with her son.

In Windsor, Randall has crafted a hilarious snob whose arrogance and intellectual heft serve to shield her from Pushkin and his haunting questions 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."

Randall made a name for herself a few years ago when the Margaret Mitchell estate tried to suppress publication of her Gone With the Wind parody, The Wind Done Gone. While the book received more publicity than praise, Pushkin confirms that Randall is 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 is fresh and original. Allusions to Othello follow allusions to DuBois and, er, Tupac. You might have known Gone With the Wind, but this is a new story for a different generation of black mothers and sons.

-- John Dicker
Pushkin and the Queen of Spades by Alice Randall. 282 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24. Randall will read at Outwrite Books, Wed., June 9, at 8 p.m. 404-607-0082. www.outwritebooks.com.

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