“Son, if you’re going to risk your love, save all the space you can for hurt.”--GraceThis spectacular debut novel was a finalist for the 2014 Pen/Hemingway Award, an award that went ultimately to NoViolet Bulawayo for her astonishing debut We Need New Names. Jackson has an earlier book of stories and essays called Oversoul: Stories and Essays, published in 2012, which deserves to be unearthed.
This fiction has the feel of real lives on the brink, aided by the coldly invasive government forms and drug treatment schedules that divide sections of the story. Never been booked nor needed to fill out an Incident Report? No matter. The folks here can tell you just how hopeless it feels, and how little of the whole story the forms capture. And they’ll tell you they never want to have to do it again, hoping against hope that they and everyone else in their neighborhood-sized universe has the strength to stay on the right path.
Grace and Champ (“name it first, then make it so”), mother and son, come close, so close to fulfilling the promise of their names. This is the story of their curved and intersecting paths: how Grace, straight from rehab, is cherished by Champ and how Champ creates a vision of world he has control over. He’s determined: “Say it first and believe it second; that’s my psalm.” No one else is creating a habitable place for those he loves—why shouldn’t he?
The Pacific Northwest has its share of the complicated rhythms of race. This story is set in the ‘hoods of Portland, where it rains almost constantly and most of the population is whiter ‘n a salt lick. There are just enough black people about to remind you the importance of family.
We watch a boy do a man’s work and a mother try to marshal inner reserves that are too meager. The character of Michael jittering out of the gloom on a rainy night strikes terror, and rightly so. “With friends like these…”
The interleaved voices of Champ and Grace circle one another like a contrapuntal melody, each adding emphasis and context until finally coming together in a sinuous and discordant harmony. The outcome we have feared from the start has the smooth and clarion inevitability of Greek tragedy or a blues progression.
“Listen, don’t forget this. Don’t let this slip your mind. Most of us, if we’re lucky, we see a few seconds of the high life. And the rest are the residue years.”--Mister
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