Why We Read Fiction: A Review of Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man / by Peter LaBerge

BY KWAME OPOKU-DUKU

  A Lucky Man , by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press, 2018).

There is a moment four pages into “J’ouvert, 1996,” the second story of Jamel Brinkley’s collection, A Lucky Man, that is in so many ways emblematic of the nine stories comprising the whole. Brinkley’s young narrator, Ty, is about to get a bad haircut from his mother, a day before the West Indian Day Parade. Where the readers is situated in the plot, Brinkley has already rendered the family dynamic so fully, it becomes easy to think that you know what the story is about: looking foolish at a very crucial time in his transition from youth to manhood. It becomes easy to laugh as Ty pleads with her to go to a barbershop. “‘Trip’s been going since before he could walk,’” the narrator says, to which his mother responds, “‘Like I give a damn about some fool calls himself Trip.” There’s a familiarity to the characters that comes from Brinkley’s use of dialogue, generous  in the way it both provides a window into the characters’ lives and serves as a bit of misdirection. It can lull the reader into a false sense of security. But reading on, one comes to realize, no one truly knows what lies in another human’s heart, and what Brinkley has done in this first collection is remind us exactly why we read fiction—to find that out. To live in it.

The stories in A Lucky Man range from 18 to 38 pages, and in that space, Brinkley depicts each world in astounding detail. Clothes, music, walks, looks, skin tone, bodies—like the narrator of the first story, “No More Than a Bubble,” says, he and his friends “liked to know these kinds of things.” It’s these details that leave you so immersed, feeling like you know, so that when young, male partygoers, who crash a party looking for sex, come to understand something about themselves that they weren’t quite prepared for, you feel implicated along with the narrator. When, at the end of the story, he reflects on how his idea of beauty has changed, we are left to wonder about how our own misconceptions of beauty are constructed. The veneer of a story about two knuckleheads looking to score has cracked, revealing a story about a son trying to understand his father, about the fear of being alone. As the narrator is left wondering if he really got what he wanted, the reader will also wonder, Is this what I wanted, too? How have my own expectations influenced my reading of the story? Faulkner famously lamented that young writers forget that “the problem of the human heart at conflict with itself” could alone make for good writing. Brinkley takes Faulkner’s words to heart. His stories teem with conflict and, ultimately, are about locating that feeling. They speak to the way the heart’s conflict moves through time. They shift and grow with each page.

To be a writer of color—to be a black writer—is to bear the burden of expectation. To be a black male writer of any era is to bear the burden of representing black masculinity. Throughout the nine stories, Brinkley writes refreshingly nuanced portraits of black men, which, more often than not, highlight their fragility, in many cases as the men attempt to highlight their virility. Fraught relations between fathers and sons are interrogated in several of the stories. Themes of comportment and performance emerge as the sons make their way out into the world and try to find a connection, whether it be through exploring their sexuality or musing over the eventual arrest that will rob them of their future. Brinkley’s commitment to creating complex characters and allowing them to exist as they are, regardless of the consequences, is one of his many strengths. His protagonists often live through cringeworthy moments, and there are undercurrents of menace everywhere, reminiscent of writers like Mary Gaitskill or Raymond Carver. Yet, the precision through which Brinkley employs detail gives his stories such a rich and singular feel that it’s hard to compare him to anybody. Much of the beauty in these stories comes from the perspective of their narrators. There is distance between the speakers and the story being told, which allows for questions, which allow for moments of poetry. Wisdom exists in Brinkley’s speakers, even if they don’t see it themselves—it’s in the questions they ask and in the ways they remain unsure.

In the final story of the collection, “Clifton’s Place,” a neighborhood bar is transformed until it is unrecognizable, a chilling story of erasure through gentrification. Brinkley pairs this erasure with the owner of Clifton’s Place, a woman struggling through the phases of dementia, and the various demises of its group of neighborhood regulars, known as “the folks.” The story follows a regular named Ellis, a lonely, somewhat pathetic man, as he witnesses it firsthand. While being lectured by the bartender, Sharod, about not being run out of their own establishments, Sharod warns him, “[W]e can’t have none of that soft-ass, bearing-gifts-for-massa, wannabe native informant bullshit. I see you eyeballing that white girl, but don’t get it twisted. The gentry don’t give a fuck about you.” Ellis still follows her home and humiliates himself. Again, Brinkley spares no one, and by end of the story, just as we are not sure if we can bear any more degradation, Brinkley walks us through that door, allowing us to live out the consequences, and as we read the last words, we are once again left wondering, Is this what I wanted? We are once again left questioning ourselves, reminded once again why we read fiction.

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Kwame Opoku-Duku, along with Karisma Price, is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective. His debut chapbook, The Unbnd Verses, is forthcoming from Glass Poetry Press, and his work is featured or forthcoming in BOMB, Massachusetts Review, The Literary Review, Bettering American Poetry, BOAAT, and elsewhere. Kwame lives in New York City.