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Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison worked on his second novel for 40 years. More than 15 years after his death, we finally get to read it.

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE, but it’s true: Invisible Man was the first and only novel that groundbreaking author Ralph Ellison published during his lifetime. But Ellison did have plans for a second novel. Lots of plans. The Oklahoma-born Ellison began working on a book about his home state just as Invisible Man was published in 1952. And then he worked on it some more. And then some more.

When Ellison died, on April 16, 1994, the novel was still unfinished, but he left behind thousands of pages of manuscripts and notes. Adam Bradley, an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado, and John F. Callahan, a friend of Ellison’s as well as the literary executor of Ellison’s estate and a professor of humanities at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, have poured over and analyzed Ellison’s manuscripts to piece together a posthumous follow-up novel entitled Three Days Before the Shooting … : The Unfinished Second Novel (Modern Library, $50).

Both Callahan and Bradley fell hard for Ellison’s work during their college days: Callahan in the 1960s as the civil rights sit-ins were going strong down South and Bradley in 1993 when Callahan — then Bradley’s professor at Lewis & Clark — put it on his reading list.

“I felt for sure as soon as I started reading that book that he was not only speaking for me but to me, about me, and through me,” Bradley says.

After several painstaking years, Callahan and Bradley are finally ready to share Ellison’s follow-up with the world. And boy, is it a doozy! The massive Three Days is a sweeping narrative about an African-American jazzman-turned-preacher named Alonzo Hickman who becomes the surrogate father to a child of “indeterminate race.” The child grows up to become a racist politician, and Hickman learns of a plot to assassinate his former charge.

“It’s a book very much about memory and the need to remember and the cost of rejecting your identity,” Callahan says. “It’s a book also about Ellison’s mantra: that the true American, whatever else he or she is, was also somehow black.”

Three Days will undoubtedly challenge readers. While, according to Callahan, it includes Ellison’s “latest and most complete drafts for each [section],” it is by no means a finished work. “My advice to the reader is relax into it,” Callahan says. “It’s a mystery. It’s a puzzle. And it’s quintessentially Ellison.”

Three Days offers readers the chance to see a master writer at work and to imagine what might have been if Ellison were still with us today. It will also most certainly leave readers slack-jawed in awe of the beauty of what he previously delivered.

“This novel, because of its incompletion, is an empowering book in that it requires an active reader,” Bradley says. “It insists on a reader taking on a role of cocreator. That is its greatest challenge but also its greatest opportunity.”

Callahan assures readers, though, that the work they’re reading has not been greatly marred by outside direction; rather, it is almost entirely Ellison’s.

“Like [Franz] Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ symphony [Symphony No. 8 in B Minor], there [was] enough there that we felt the best course of action would be to present this in kind of an unmediated way,” he says. “We did very little line-by-line editing. Whenever possible, we went with [Ellison’s] words, punctuation, and grammar.”

Adds Bradley: “Our job was to get out of his way as much as possible.”