My favourite novels of this year depict city life in '70s, '80s and '90s Kingston, "post-racial" Los Angeles and the fictional city of Springfield, telling stories of "third world" poverty and drug violence, "first world" human rights and divisive police brutality.
A Brief History of Seven Killings. By Marlon James.
The 2015 Booker Prize winner is this year’s “it” Black novel. Every other day while reading it on the subway someone tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I was enjoying it as much as they did, and Seven Killings deserves all the attention. Marlon James successfully pulls off several things that your average How-to-get-your-novel-published blog advises never to do: it has too many characters, more than one narrator, many of them use “too much slang” and all of that makes it a bit hard to follow. It’s ambitious, to say the least.
Of course, the story James is telling, of the attempted killing of Bob Marley, the political violence of downtown Kingston, Jamaica in that era and the murderous drug reign of the ex-pat Jamaican posses in several North American cities, is a convoluted one. It could fill up several novels. And, of course, telling the story from so many different perspectives gives voice to colourful characters not usually represented in so-called serious literature. Most impressively, his narrators’ use of Jamaican patois is nearly unprecedented in its authenticity, especially the way he manages to give each Jamaican narrator a different style, vocabulary and accent. Like any other country, region or city Jamaica has more than one accent, and some narrators in Seven Killings sound posh (Nina Burgess), some thicker (Weeper) and others downright ghetto (Bam-Bam). As someone of Jamaican descent, I may grasp it better than many readers, but I believe James has used patois as well as any of the Harlem Renaissance-era writers who fought for the merits of so-called “broken English” in Black literature.
James also laces his characters’ dialogue with proverbs and Jamaican-isms that colour the speech of all cultures in the African diaspora. Gems like, “bad times is always good times for somebody,” and “nothing good ever come out of a gun’s mouth,” will remind readers of the late great Chinua Achebe’s classic African novel Things Fall Apart.
But the way he tells the story doesn’t completely overshadow the actual story, which is—forgive the cliché—epic in scope. Both the real story and James’ fictionalized version feature drug gangs propped up by political parties, their enforcers trained to kill by CIA agents and their leaders so powerful they boast their own justice system complete with jails, courts and executions. There is Bob Marley, called simply “the Singer” in the novel, trying to make peace between the politicians and their respective flagship neighbourhoods, the JLP-controlled Copenhagen City and PNP-run Eight Lanes (the real life Tivoli Gardens and Mathews Lane, respectively). It isn’t immediately clear why some names are changed (“Josey Wales” is Lester Coke a.k.a. Jim Brown, don of Tivoli Gardens) and others are not (Griseldo Blanco, ruthless Stateside matriarch of the Medellin Columbian drug cartel), but any kid who’s ever asked their Jamaican uncle about the gunmen of West Kingston knows that few people who survived those times will say much about them.
The way he captures the beauty of Jamaican language might be his biggest accomplishment, but James is brave to tell this story at all, and a literary luminary to tell it as beautifully as he has.
The Sellout. By Paul Beatty.
Paul Beatty is my favourite writer, hands down. His 1996 debut novel The White Boy Shuffle became my favourite book when I first read it last year and I consider him one of the greatest contemporary writers on the subject of race, but in a hilarious, satirical, I.D.G.A.F. kind of way. If Ta-Nehisi Coates is Chuck D, Beatty is Flavor Flav, the necessary, but habitually line-stepping comic relief.
The Sellout is his first novel since 2008 and it will have you laughing out loud on your local public transit system from its first words. “This may be hard to believe, coming from a Black man, but I’ve never stolen anything,” the narrator begins in the prologue, listing several transgressions stereotypically associated with inner-city Black men that he’d never committed. He continues, “Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America…”
That is classic Beatty, choosing the funniest, most shocking way to make a simple point. His characters are caricatures of Black and American life, often helpless suckers to whom life happens and not the other way around. Shuffle’s protagonist Gunnar Kaufman is a surfing, skateboarding fish out of water in South Central L.A. who becomes an iconic best-selling poet and a superstar basketball prospect by accident and his best friend Nick Scoby is his teammate who is physically unable to miss a shot. Sellout’s narrator stumbles into a brief career as a “nigger whisperer,” talking down Black men in crisis like his crack psychologist father once did, and then as some sort of reverse human rights activist when his neighbourhood’s most famous resident, the least famous and last surviving Little Rascal Hominy Jenkins, volunteers to be his slave. He takes Hominy’s fight to be a coon (“I’m a slave. It’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play”) and the residents of his forgotten “agrarian ghetto’s” fight to be the separate and unequal “Last Bastion of Blackness” all the way to Washington. Beatty could wring an amazing novel out of a less outlandish idea, and he makes an absolute classic out of this one.
You never really know if Beatty’s refusal of comic boundaries is trivializing the issues he’s addressing or magnifying them, but Sellout is clearly a finger-pointing laugh at our laughable “post-racial” society.
All American Boys. By Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.
Last year the coolest public librarian ever lent me her personal copy of Jason Reynolds’ award-winning novel for young adults When I Was The Greatest, and I instantly became a fan of Reynolds. This year he’s joined forces with his friend Brendan Kiely, an award-winning author in his own right, to tell the story of Rashad, a Black teen beaten by a police officer for no good reason and Quinn, his “All-American” white classmate who witnesses the beating and loves the officer who perpetrated it like a brother.
Reynolds, who is Black, pens Rashad’s narration while Kiely, who is white, writes Quinn’s for a tag team of the two boys’ perspectives on the incident and the events that follow in their fictional hometown of Springfield. There is anger and disappointment within Rashad’s circle of family and friends, calls for Quinn’s loyalty from the same family who supported him after his father’s death years before and uncomfortable connections between the two camps, since Quinn hopes to star on the same top-ranked high school basketball team as Rashad’s best friends. Both kids go back and forth on how big a part race plays in Rashad’s situation and whether or not to make a big deal out of something that happens every single day in cities everywhere. Quinn’s hesitant journey to empathy is especially moving, as is Rashad’s relationship with his father—an ex-cop, which reminds me of mine at his age.
The moment that Quinn finally decides to take a small stand will have you emotional and the tears may keep rolling as Reynolds and Kiely weave Rashad and Quinn’s stories to a powerful conclusion that is so real that it doesn’t feel like fiction. Because it isn’t.
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