Title: Hell of a Book by Jason Jason Mott
Book Beginnings quote:
In the corner of the small living room of the small country house at the end of the dirt road beneath the blue Carolina sky, a dark-skinned five-year-old boy sat with his knees pulled up to his chest and his small, dark arms wrapped around his legs and it took all that he had to contain the laughter inside the thrumming cage in his chest.
I step off the plane looking like a millions euros and feeling like about two pesos. I smell like jet fuel, pretzels, and exhaustion.
Summary: A Black writer's cross country book tour explores both love and racial violence and the role of he is expected to take when a bit of fame comes his way.
Hell of a Book is named for the book written by the nameless author/protagonist. As he criss-crosses the country on his book tour people always greet him with praise about the book and end with "It's a hell of a book." But as the author goes from interview to interview he is loathe to tell his audiences what the book is about and one is under the impression that he doesn't really know himself. And as he jets from city to city he seems to lose more and more of himself along the way, devolving into drunken hallucinations where he thinks he sees a kid, a kid who says he is real, but one who was recently shot by police violence.
Running concurrent to the 'Hell of a Book' book tour story is the story of a little black kid, whom bullies name 'Soot' because of his extremely black skin. Though his parents want to keep him safe by helping him learn to disappear at will (See Book Beginnings page 3 quote) they cannot protect him from the cruelties of life including witnessing the death of his father at the hands of the police.
As the two stories unfold they start to merge and one is left to wonder if the unnamed author was once the boy named Soot.
Review: Hell of a Book is a hard book to describe. In fact when I typed in the title, Google gave me this help by defining the genres as "Satire, Coming-of-age story, Humorous Fiction, Urban fiction, Absurdist fiction, Southern Fiction". My husband, who only listened to about an hour of the audiobook, thought perhaps it was magical realism. I'm not sure how to describe it other than both weird and profound.
I guess you've already figured out the 'weird parts': unnamed protagonist; two concurrent stories; a kid who appears like a ghost yet is determined that he is real; an author who can't describe his own book; and lots of booze.
But the profound part is what really interests me. The book got me thinking about racial issues and I want to discuss this book with someone else who has read it. Here are some of those profound thoughts:
- Because an author is Black, does that mean he/she has to be willing to a spokesman about the 'Black condition', showing up at anti-racism rallies, speaking out about racial trauma, etc?
- When an author is identified as Black that title goes with him/her, 'Black author', and this limits the types of characters they can include in their books. We don't call whites who write as 'White authors'.
- Black parents recognize that they need to prepare their children for the realities of the world but as soon as they start telling their children ways to help protect themselves they are also, in essence, telling them that they are 'less than' others and it lowers self-esteem.
Update: Hell of a Book won the 2021 National Book Award for fiction! Yippee. This book deserves all the fuss!
This being week 2 of Nonfiction November with the task of paring fiction with a nonfiction title, I thought I'd recommend a few nonfiction books to read alongside the novel, Hell of a Book. Try one of these nonfiction books about race issues in America: