Reviews

'A Lucky Man' Offers a Bounty of Wonders

Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man is an excellent debut short story collection about manhood, relationships, family, and identity.

A Lucky Man
Jamel Brinkley

Graywolf

May 2018

Other

Sometimes it's futile to even think about resisting the wave of adulation coming for the latest cultural artifact. No matter how many glowing blurbs a publisher can squeeze on book jacket and inside the first few pages of an emerging writer's debut short story collection, the material can't be that good. Overstuffed bandwagons continuously wander the cerebral marketplace, going up and down the avenue, telling us to read this book as soon as possible. The experienced, cynical reader can always walk away, turn a deaf ear to the applause, and hold out for something better, something they discover on their own terms.

How we choose to view Jamel Brinkley's National Book Award Longlisted A Lucky Man shouldn't be under the baggage of the advance reader applause, which in its own way can quickly backfire. Could it really be that good? Are Brinkley's stories best understood within the context of race, gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity? The answers to these questions are "yes" and "no". Brinkley's stories are precious without being fragile. They're quiet, masterpieces in mood, tone, characterization, and family dynamics. They're not just about what it means to be a man but also what it takes to be a man, the risks involved and the consequences when navigating through a culture where you will never be able to avoid being seen as "other". Above and beyond how they will be categorized, which always risks marginalization, the stories in this collection are consistently good and will speak to the hunger in any reader wanting tender and nuanced stories about manhood.

Start with the title story. We don't know what to make of the lead character Lincoln Murray. At first he comes off as a genial school security guard. He's enjoying looking at an attractive young lady as he goes through his morning subway commute. Is she like his daughter in college? We're told Lincoln "knew the music of young people", a hint early in the story that something is amiss. It's disturbing to see this evolve to a chilling ending where nothing is as we might have liked it to have been. In the opening story, "No More Than a Bubble", the narrator searching for a quick tryst with a willing woman reflects on "…a thick snack of a girl whose shape made you work your jaws." The narrator notes that his father "…completed his long process of dying…" and the story of a search for a physical connection (which predictably yields mixed results) ends with a beautiful evocation of how sometimes there can be a thin to non-existent line between ugliness and beauty. His friend Claudius offers a theory about women with nasal voices:

"…girls who spoke this way…did so as a defense, a noisy insistence meant to distract men from the flesh."

Fatherhood comes under even more direct and impressive examination in the story "A Family". Curtis Smith watches from a distance as Andre, the son of his late friend Marvin enters a movie theater with Lena, a woman they both knew and loved. It's all about the profound ways observing our lives from a distance can produce overwhelming results. Consider this beautiful passage where Curtis -- newly released from prison after 12 years -- dances with Lena at a local club. What was the connection that kept them together?

"It didn't seem sexual… It was as though a bright, delicate object… were held between them… The exhilaration of her breathing and her… thighs and her hand were the forces she exerted on him…"

Curtis had read Walter Mosley novels in prison and developed his mind. He connects with Lena once out, in all sorts of ways, and he allows her to be the sole breadwinner as he continues to transition into the free world. Is it really free? Will he ever be liberated from the act that put him in prison? "A Family" is a jewel of a story that persists because of its concentrated textures.

What is a family? How thin can the definition of that term be stretched? In "I Happy Am", a little boy named Freddy attends a Fresh Air-type camp for inner city kids to access nature due to the time and money provided by "…some friendly white people." He's surprised when they end up at the house of one host for some particular reasons:

"The woman was black, no different from him. Her skin was the same dark shade as his. She didn't seem like a maid or anyone else who would work in a big house in the suburbs."

Freddy's imagination is huge but not fully transparent. The woman "…spoke… to what his imagination guarded. It was lost in thoughts and feelings about mothers and babies and parlors and the dark brown face of Jesus…"

What does it take to make a family? How do Brinkley's characters see themselves in a world not at all meant for them? Brinkley's willingness to pace himself with these stories and set scenes strong enough to be expanded in deeper formats is generous and remarkable at the same time. These stories aren't just MFA workshop exercises in style. At their best they are fully realized distillations of multi-leveled scenarios that will only grow deeper with repeated readings.

Shorter stories like "Wolf and Rhonda" and "Clifton's Place" are less substantial than the others, but that doesn't mean they're not powerful. In the former, Wolf has another assignation with Rhonda (known here as "Fat Rhonda") on the occasion of their 20th high school reunion. Their sexual experience together again "…reminded him of soapboxing with his father…" Rhonda's mother had been dying 20 years ago, but nobody knew. Afterwards, Rhonda began a period of wandering in her life. It's the moment of their reuniting that is equal parts tender, dignified, and tragic. In "Clifton's Place", a younger man named Ellis sketches the denizens of the bar (Clifton's Place) and connects with an older woman in ways he probably would never have imagined possible had he not been receptive to the vulnerability of these sad barflies.

"Infinite Madness" succeeds because the young narrator is so in awe of his friend Micah's sexual prowess. "An excess of joy seemed to be Micah's burden in life." Micah is a hipster, a pimp at least in the sense of personality, and they were in love with the same woman. Consider this scene, where the narrator reflects on the personality of a store clerk under Micah's seductive sway:

"Even her body lies, I thought… To so wholly throw yourself into fabrication, into falseness, stretching yourself into a different shape. People like that must have a constant need to be held."

Later, after the love triangle plays itself out, there's more to consider about Micah in particular and vivid personalities in general, those larger than life characters who will always have a winning hand:

"For most people there is a gap… between the way the way they dream themselves and the way they are seen by others… he seemed to be the one for whom there isn't a gap at all."

"J'ouvert, 1996" takes place in the context of a West Indian Day Parade as a boy and his brother and an absent father navigate the journey from childhood to young adulthood. It's one of the stories that works best because the scenes meant to be thematically important are so vividly described. The narrator sees women "…of every size, in the shortest shorts I'd ever seen, gyrat[ing] their hips alone or with other women or other men." It's a story of bad haircuts and bullies and a line that could serve as a recurring theme for all these tales: "Dance or go home."

The strongest story is probably "Everything the Mouth Eats". A man and his brother navigate a trip through the DC area and to the 6th Annual Capoeira Angola Encounter. Our narrator is an Adjunct Literature Professor. He's had a strained relationship with his stepbrother Carlos, but they are together for this trip. More heartbreaking secrets are revealed by the end of this story that compel Carlos to note "…there are things that I know have happened to both of us… I'm ready to talk about it if you are…" Brinkley offers that as they payoff to this long story, but more thrilling is the description of capoeira angola, which in many ways could be a mirror reflection of his approach as a short story writer:

"Part of entering the world of capoeira angola is a constant training in vigilance… Feints and trickery are generalized into a capoeira player's world view… an unavoidable part of the texture of life itself."

Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man is a story collection that shadowboxes with your heart, pulls out tender mercies at the close of some selections, and tricks you into embracing characters at the start only to shine a darker light on them at the end. Separately, these stories work as 11 planets thriving with sustainable life and dynamic cultures. Together, they're a galaxy whose treasures will prove immeasurable no matter how many visitors they receive.

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