‘I’m deeply suspicious of the idea that people or characters can suddenly undergo deep and genuine change, or that radical change and true epiphanies are common,’ Jamel Brinkley told an interviewer last summer, when his debut short story collection, A LUCKY MAN, was published in the United States. ‘But’, he continued, ‘I am completely faithful to the idea that there are moments when we can be profoundly shaken’. In these nine memorable stories Brinkley shakes each of his main characters in turn, and we, as we read, are shaken too.
That shaking often has its roots in sex, an act that typically plays out very differently in the minds of Brinkley’s characters than in reality. In the opening story, ‘No More Than a Bubble’, two men walk a pair of women home from a house party. At the party the men, second-year student gatecrashers surrounded by recent graduates, are convinced they are looking through a window into ‘the next phase of life’, where the booze and weed are more potent, and the women wear ‘better, tinier underwear than the girls we knew’.
After a long, strange night, the foursome finally ‘arrive at sex’ (the verb conveys the dogged, low-speed pursuit the men have enacted in order to reach this destination), but not in the way the men wanted. The women make them undress first, and insist they regard each other’s nakedness. ‘There’s always more to what you want than what you wanted’, one of the women says, but this shared experience doesn’t draw the two friends together; it drives them apart. They are too wrapped up in their roles as young black men (‘We both preferred girls of a certain plumpness, with curves – in part, I think, because that’s what black guys are supposed to like’) to even consider a thought so radical, for them at least, as enjoying, or even acknowledging in any intimate sense, another male body. Yet the sense lingers that their disgust is at least partly alloyed with desire.
Throughout the story these men wear a series of masks, and depictions of black masculinity as a performative act recur across the collection. In ‘Wolf and Rhonda’, we learn that Will, who is only called Wolf nowadays when he travels back from Florida to the Bronx to attend his high school reunion, was popular as a boy ‘because of his brashness, the unpredictable ways he performed being black and male’. As he has grown older, however, he has adapted his camouflage:
As he surrounded himself with increasing numbers of white people, people unlike those he’d grown up with in Mott Haven, his performance was by turns more timid and more exaggerated. He began to emphasise a more blatantly sexual approach to women, a consciously narrowed intelligence, and an inclination to keep any unpopular opinions to himself. He was conspicuous but never threatening, and for this he’d been rewarded. Wolf typically had been less cognizant of his acting than of being rewarded, and as the benefits became more substantial – more sex, more powerful connections, increasingly better jobs followed by the assurance of a fairly lucrative career – his practiced ignorance won out. Soon he was barely aware that he was acting at all. What he perceived instead was an irritation just beneath the skin, one he could claw at but never relieve.
The sex in ‘No More Than a Bubble’ might not go as planned, but in ‘Wolf and Rhonda’ it doesn’t happen at all, with an attempt to restage an old liaison ending in failure. Wolf remembers the day, twenty years before, when he had sex with ‘Fat Rhonda’, the high school pariah. In that encounter, in a church the adult pair abandons the reunion to visit, the power shifts in remarkable ways between the teenagers. Brinkley’s writing, which time and again throughout this collection shows his ability to be both subtle and striking, is alive here to the way in which sexual encounters, particularly between the very young, can play out on several different levels at once, with elements of domination, submission, desire and repulsion becoming chaotically intertwined. At the beginning of the encounter, Wolf wants Rhonda because he knows he can have her: he is exerting his power, and pursues their coupling almost as a prank or dare. But to his surprise,
Wolf had enjoyed being with her. It had been much more than sexual pleasure, much more than the risk of getting caught. Yes, he’d liked the sensation of gripping her in the light of the stained glass, but had been surprised by how much joy he took in the impression that there was always more of her – actively extending, thickening, deepening – more than he could ever possibly reach. He couldn’t have explained what he was doing, making such meaning of her body. He was too absorbed in the experience. It made him feel as though there were more of him too.
Throughout the story Brinkley skilfully switches his close-third narration between Wolf and Rhonda, which allows him first of all to show Wolf’s self-mythologising from the outside: he has, to Rhonda, ‘the heaviness of desperation’, and an event that was significant for him is for her ‘some distant day, a weightless speck of time’. But Rhonda’s point of view isn’t only utilised to throw additional light onto Wolf. When he, drunk and despairing, calls her a bitch, she wonders ‘why she didn’t feel threatened. She waited, examining the texture of the ensuing silence. What he’d said, she decided, was only juvenile name-calling, a helpless tantrum’. It’s in this moment, and the regard it pays to Rhonda’s interiority, that the story becomes one that’s equally concerned with its two principals.
In another story a character emerges from a meditation session as if drugged, and considers his friend’s faith in life’s meaning. ‘Why wouldn’t any of us want to believe it?’ he thinks. ‘It’s a generous story in which the universe has a definite shape and its movements throb with personal significance. Everything – even life’s routine tragedies, even death – is a sign, and every sign can be understood’. Symbolism can be a strength or a weakness in fiction, particularly in short stories where restricted confines create an urgent need for things – events, settings, utterances – to resonate. Underdo it and you are left with a slice of life, soon forgotten. Overdo it and the fiction becomes airless and portentous. Brinkley isn’t afraid of working a symbol, and sometimes, as in ‘Wolf and Rhonda’, where Wolf finds the church doors bolted, and realises that he is literally locked out of the past, or punches a balloon ‘with all of his strength’ only to see it rebound then float ‘with perverse slowness back to the ceiling’, a foreshadowing of his impotence, that symbolism is overt, but overt in the way that, say, D. H. Lawrence’s symbolism is overt: the writing is strong enough to bear the symbols’ prominence.
Brinkley has spoken about certain of his stories being in dialogue with those by other authors. ‘No More Than a Bubble’ takes its title from ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’, the opening story of Denis Johnson’s JESUS’ SON, while ‘A Family’ was written in response to Yiyun Li’s ‘Gold Boy, Emerald Girl’, and ‘Everything the Mouth Eats’, about two estranged half-brothers on a capoeira retreat, shares its structure and certain thematic concerns with James Baldwin’s story about the relationship between a schoolteacher and his junkie, jazz pianist brother, ‘Sonny’s Blues’. In Brinkley’s story the narrator, an adjunct literature professor, remembers being told by a high school teacher: “I was one of the lucky ones who would get out of the South Bronx and make something of myself”. Driving past Harlem tenements in ‘Sonny’s Blues’, the narrator thinks of ‘boys exactly like the boys we once had been’ who ‘found themselves smothering in these houses’, who ‘came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t’. In ‘Everything the Mouth Eats’, the trap is not only the South Bronx housing projects, ‘formidable’ brick buildings ‘throwing down enormous shadows everywhere’, but also what they contain. In their apartment, when the boys’ mother is at work, the narrator’s stepfather plays a game that involves taking the boys onto his lap and asking, ‘De quien tú eres?’ The answer is ‘Daddy’, but neither boy can ever say it fast enough. ‘As soon as he asked the question – even if it seemed that the answer came right away, even if the answer interrupted the question – he would begin relentlessly tickling whichever boy was sitting on him’. Over time, these enforced play sessions become sexually abusive, a shared secret that drives a wedge between the two boys.
Given these events, it’s understandable that one of the things the narrator values most about the discipline of capoeira is how it attunes you to possible threats:
Part of entering the world of capoeira angola is a constant training in vigilance, and not just during the actual playing of the game. Feints and trickery are generalised into a capoeira player’s worldview such that they are revealed to be an unavoidable part of the texture of life itself. I realise now how strange it is to exist otherwise, especially in a big city, and I marvel at people rushing, rushing, headlong into things, how full of trust they are, how they can’t see what often lurks behind the floating vapour of a smile. But isn’t the family the first arena of such knowledge? Isn’t it family that, in so many ways, determines our approach to life’s deceptions?
Those last two lines are an example of how willing Brinkley is to drive home a point, but the occasional thematic explicitness of his writing doesn’t manifest as clumsiness. Most of these stories are between twenty and thirty pages long, and because his writing builds patiently its more direct moments, a little like the sex in ‘No More Than a Bubble’, feel arrived at rather than dropped suddenly from the sky.
Talented as Brinkley is at writing stories at a length great enough to allow the story to roam in several different directions, it is the collection’s shortest work, ‘A Lucky Man’, that delivers the most profound shake. Here the unthinking trust of those rushing people mentioned above, or, if not trust then at least an absence of suspicion, is exploited by a family man called Lincoln Murray. Lincoln likes to photograph women on the subway or the street with his phone. He has amassed sixty of these clandestine portraits, and on the day ‘A Lucky Man’ describes, as he travels to his job as a security guard at a private school in Manhattan, we learn that his wife, Alexis, has discovered them.
Having Alexis for a wife is what makes Lincoln a lucky man, at least in the opinion of his co-worker, James: ‘I wish I could get me a high-quality woman like that. A good woman’. But having seen the pictures, Alexis has gone to stay with a friend and Lincoln doesn’t know when, or if, she’s coming back. Sent home sick from work, he walks south towards Brooklyn. His daughter Tameka is coming home that day from her first year away at college, but he has forgotten about her. As he walks he deletes the photographs, and ‘[e]ach time he stopped on the street to delete an image from his phone, Lincoln took a long look at it, as if the thing that would fortify him for the talk with his wife might be there, as if he would discover what, until now, he had overlooked’.
In a book where male violence towards women is never far away (one character gropes female students in the chaotic press of home time, another feels an urge to rip his lover’s spine from her back), Lincoln’s sly voyeurism is perhaps its most insidious manifestation. Here is a man who loves his wife and daughter, but who at the same time can either depersonalise other women to a chilling degree, or justify his actions by being self-deludingly confident enough in his own benignity (‘[t]hey were all pictures of faces, not that other kind’). Lincoln is a monster in three dimensions, and while his long walk through the city feels like an atonement of sorts, his sin being erased with each deleted photograph, the story keeps twisting in unexpected directions right up to the last line.
Another long walk that is evidently covering inner terrain as well as outer is described in ‘J’ouvert, 1996’. This one is undertaken by Ty and his younger brother Omari, who want to go to the West Indian Day Parade, the main event of Brooklyn’s annual Labor Day Parade. The day before, wanting to leave their apartment to their mother and her boyfriend Mike (their father is upstate, ‘in some hard little room’ in Otisville prison), a friend tells them about J’ouvert, a parade that precedes the West Indian Day Parade, beginning in the early hours and running through the dawn. For Ty in particular the boys’ night becomes a passage from youth – the most prominent emblem of which is the disastrous haircut his mother has given him – into adulthood, as he gets into a fight, receives beer and street wisdom from some old men (‘Every black man don’t go to prison, son’), and grinds with an older woman twice his size.
‘It stressed me the hell out to ask Ma for anything’, Ty says in the story’s opening lines, when he makes an unsuccessful request for money for a haircut, ‘especially that summer, when I’d decided to leave my boyhood behind’. In ‘Araby’ by James Joyce, a boy standing on the same cusp of manhood asks for money from his uncle, and makes a night-time journey across a city that ends with a confusing, semi-sexual encounter. The narrator of Joyce’s story is obsessed with a neighbour, his friend’s older sister, and wants to travel to the Araby bazaar to buy her a gift. But when he arrives the bazaar is already half-closed, and his eavesdropping on the flirtatious conversation between a woman and two young men shows him how little he knows of the adult world he is entering, and leaves him feeling foolish and humiliated. Ty is similarly confused and disgusted by the way his mother and Mike behave, watching as she ‘crossed and uncrossed her legs with extreme awareness of herself, awareness that Mike enjoyed looking at her, delighted that he did, as if she were some other woman and not our mother’. But while Joyce’s story ends in anguish and self-loathing, in the final pages of ‘J’ouvert 1996’, Ty experiences in quick succession a realisation about an episode in his father and mother’s past, and a beautifully evoked awareness of his brother – derided, ignored or barely tolerated throughout the night – as another human who is just doing his best, like all of us, to navigate a world brimming with pain and confusion. It is one of those generous, unforgettable moments fiction can provide. It feels like a sign.