DECEMBER 16, 2017
IN JASON REYNOLDS’S new novel in verse Long Way Down, it all began with The Rules.
No matter what.
No. 2: Snitching
No matter what.
No. 3: Revenge
No matter what.
Will’s brother Shawn has just been shot. Knowing that it is his responsibility to honor the rules of his community, Will goes in search of the man who ended his brother’s life, carrying Shawn’s gun to complete the deed. In the elevator of the building where Will is supposed to find Shawn’s killer, he is visited by ghosts from his past, all of whom have suffered a similar fate at the hands of a man with a gun. As the elevator descends, and the ghosts all reveal the circumstances surrounding their deaths, the reader is dragged down through the chaos of Will’s grief-stricken mind.
Something ached inside me when I finished this novel, a quiet pain that still hasn’t quite left. Even now, I can feel its presence when I sit down to write, the way someone might gingerly touch the new skin of a healing wound. Perhaps it is just the universal feeling of grief that overpowers us when we lose a family member, because we have lost a piece of ourselves.
but if the blood
inside you is on the inside
of someone else,
you never want to
see it on the outside of
The feeling of helplessness was too familiar, because even though the rules that govern my own life are different, I can still see their power in Will’s world. I can see how they wind their way around a person, especially a young person, cutting off his options and obscuring his view.
“Every community has rules,” says Reynolds. “Rules that are blindly followed. Codes of conduct that come from police brutality and poverty that make necessary certain rules, because they are put in place for safety.” Safety from the people who are supposed to protect us, safety that is actually an illusion because no one is ever really safe, which is the greatest tragedy of this story.
Shortly after the novel was published, I asked the author how he spoke to young people about the subject matter of his work, especially those whose stories were not unlike Will’s. “I talk to them about things that matter to them,” he said. “That actually have nothing to do with my books. Sometimes my childhood. Sneakers, ice cream trucks, swimming pools…” He adds: “Even though this book is an obvious warning against gun violence, it is also meant to humanize young people in the midst of all of this” — an important message because it has become too easy to look away from tragedy when it isn’t happening in our own families.
But of course we understand the pain of loss very well, as it is one of those uniquely human things that unites us regardless of circumstances. We may not live by Will’s rules, but we can empathize with a grieving brother, and our blood still runs cold at the thought of our own mother experiencing the loss of a child:
She sat in the kitchen, sobbing
into her palms, which she peeled
away only to lift glass to mouth
With each sip came a brief
silence, and with each brief
silence I snuck in a breath.
Long Way Down inspires empathy by forcing readers to experience the protagonist’s anguish. It reveals what Reynolds calls the “feeling of anger when you’re so upset and don’t know where to put the pain.” Grief replaces rationality with uncontrolled rage and creates a tidal wave of emotion that demands to be felt. The excruciating sensations of loss and anger and responsibility overwhelms all other thoughts. You can’t escape it. You are trapped in your own destructive sadness, which is what makes the elevator setting of this story so appropriate. It is like grief itself: once you are in it, you are trapped until it releases you — until the doors clang open and you can think freely again.
“It’s a physical space that directly mimics the feeling of trauma,” says Reynolds. “And when we think about pain, it’s closed in, slow. I chose a space that mimics the psychosis of intense pain.”
He accomplishes this with a genuine love for the rhythms of his story, which led me to ask how he felt about narrating the audiobook version. “Weird, but good,” he said. “Poetry was my first love and medium. Reading this felt natural for me,” which is why he felt a certain degree of responsibility to record it himself. “If you miss a beat, you ruin a page.”
In fact, the whole story follows a series of well-timed beats, as the elevator doors open to expose the deaths that haunt Will’s looming choice — to follow the rules or walk away. The first ghost, Buck, “the only big brother Shawn had ever had,” doesn’t seem surprised that his life was cut short by a gun. As a street dealer, he lived with the prospect of violence every day: he followed the rules, and he died by them. Then comes Dani, a childhood friend, appearing eight years older than she was when she was killed. Will remembers her flower dress, but more importantly he remembers a time when they had been happy, before the rules applied to them. And as the elevator descends further, we feel the bittersweet loss of childhood as he tells her what he needs to do and she asks, “What if you miss?”
The story was written and rewritten until Reynolds was satisfied that it was ready. “It was originally written in vignettes,” he told me. “I knew the characters and the plot points. I knew I needed different kinds of visitors. Good Guys. Bad Guys. I rewrote in verse and found the language, but only the necessary language. For me that was the most rewarding part. Trimming the fat and only using the language that served the story best. Over and over and over again.”
This obsession with detail is obvious to anyone who picks up the novel. Reynolds insists that this is a “novel-in-verse,” not “a novel in poems,” which is probably another reason I was able to connect more easily with his words. Even though Reynolds might not classify this work as poetry, he admits that the white space on the page serves as “an entrée to poetry,” which is comforting to readers who might be anxious about tackling a novel in verse.
It also speaks to the author’s own arrival to this level of craft because his journey as a writer was not a smooth one. While he might be a New York Times best-selling author, a National Book Award Honoree, a Kirkus Award winner, a Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors, there was a time when Reynolds felt shut out by the world of literature. During his childhood in Washington, DC, Reynolds felt that books were about other people and their problems, which made it difficult for him to connect. This struggle to find himself on the page led him to set books aside at the age of nine; he would not discover them again until he was a teenager. At the University of Maryland, he earned a BA in English with a concentration in writing and rhetoric. Yet, were it not for the influence of Queen Latifah’s 1993 album Black Rain, he might never have found his own voice — the language that led him to poetry and then ultimately to the heartbreaking prose of Long Way Down:
Uncle Mark and My Father
looked at me with hollow eyes
dancing somewhere between
guilt and grief,
which I couldn’t make sense of
until my father admitted
that he had killed
the wrong guy.
These lines — detailing an accidental murder that occurred in the service of rules no one can escape — struck me the hardest. Will’s father’s ghost is trying to explain the circumstances surrounding his death so his son will not repeat his mistakes. It was a painful reminder of the price of revenge — that it isn’t always justice and the result not always what we intend. I was destroyed by the agony in the father’s voice and the truth spoken as he watched his son with “hollow eyes.”
Family is a powerful force in this story. Reynolds is very sensitive to the loss of innocence that comes with losing the last of our protectors — father, brother — leaving us alone to battle a desperate grief. Long Way Down is an elegantly crafted work by a writer who understands the tragedy of this subject.
Julia Walton is the author of the young-adult novel Words on Bathroom Walls published by Random House in July 2017. She lives in Huntington Beach, California. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Jwaltonwrites.