AUGUST 5, 2018
IN A RECENT INTERVIEW with the Paris Review, critic and essayist Hilton Als said of his youthful departure from home, “One of the great things about becoming an adult was having my own space.” The desire to have one’s own space and the burdens that come with it — independence on one side, isolation on the other — run like bass notes through the narrative music of Jamel Brinkley’s debut story collection, A Lucky Man. His narrators and protagonists are black boys and men making their way out of childhood bedrooms and soon-to-close Catholic schools toward sweatbox house parties, family reckonings, and the shifting horizon of masculinity. They embody a dialogue with Als’s sentiment: what exactly is one’s own space, and how “great” is it really?
The children wonder, the older men reflect, and the young men — such as the narrator of “J’ouvert, 1996” who flops through a dance with an older woman at Carnival — encounter the gaps in their bravado:
I laughed and groaned and fought to stay on my feet and tried to hold on to her waist as I had seen others do but my hands slid on her glazed flesh. When the mass spasmed and advanced again the big woman gave me a hard bump, a final toss of herself, and I fell and was jabbed by elbows and knees, but then people reached and caught me by the arm and neck and lifted me and urged me on.
Brinkley offers a consistent geographic setting — New York, mostly the Bronx and Brooklyn — but the collection slips forward in time across its nine stories. At the start we’re in the 1990s, and by the last story we’re amid the post-9/11 gentrifications of places such as the South Bronx and Fort Greene. No dull signposts here. Brinkley codes the stories with telling details without overdetermining the imagined world around his characters. The sounds of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo” rush through a house party filled with young, black recent college graduates in the collection-opening “No More Than a Bubble.” As with all musical cues, if you know, you know.
Make-Everything-Comfy-for-NESCAC-Whites gentrification shudders in the background of “Clifton’s Place,” the book’s final story. Ellis sketches as he sips at the titular bar. He chats with the proprietor’s nephew, Sharod, the bartender. Ellis watches an older man check IDs at the door. Subtly, swiftly, this detail rings inside the reader’s mind: this used to be the kind of bar that didn’t need someone working the door.
Sure enough, the whites pile in — loud, rude with the jukebox, thoughtless of whose space this really is, acting not as guests but as viceroys. Ellis keeps sketching and conversing, connects with one of the white visitors, walks her home, and then, at the door, realizes that her luxury apartment building used to be the neighborhood hospital where his mother was born. Desire dies on both sides. Ellis slips away gracefully, but the woman turns sour: “[S]he shouldered her way in, her eyes on him the whole time. Before darting up the short staircase, she pressed a palm to the glass, quickening the door as it closed and clicked shut.”
Brinkley offers a number of these piercing moments — desire and expectation and misunderstanding shot through American fields of race, power, history, and gender. He renders it all with a humane imagination for what characters miss, what they mean to say, what they might have done. And like the tales that unfold in Lucia Berlin’s Southwest or John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood or William Trevor’s Dynmouth, Brinkley’s stories remind us of the power that geography wields on our families: we are never truly released from our people and our places, those irreducible facts from which we come.
Among A Lucky Man’s many wonderful accomplishments — the way the length of each story affords its characters room to move; the use of linear, progressive time to knit the individual stories into a social fabric, à la Alice Munro or Wideman — one in particular is genuinely path-clearing. Brinkley offers visions of manhood and masculinity that demonstrate candor without false intensity, desire without ownership. His male characters have fictional experiences that, in the hands of the right reader, can become equipment for living.
In the title story, Lincoln is a middle-aged security guard at a patrician Manhattan day school — one of those sets of fused-together imperial gingerbread brownstones. He is a black face in an extremely white space. His marriage is buckling. His daughter, a graduate of the school where he works, is coming home from her first year at college. Lincoln keeps many secret photos of women on his phone, but they’re “all pictures of faces, not that other kind.”
A fluttering vigilante of a white mother sees Lincoln looking at his phone outside the school and assumes he’s taking photos of the children. She yells at and shames him. Lincoln walks all the way home across the Brooklyn Bridge, and after his daughter asks him what’s wrong the free-indirect narration lifts the story’s conclusion: “Finally, he met his daughter’s gaze and told her. He described every humiliating detail of what had happened to him in front of her old school. He told her what he could. He told her a lie.”
“Everything the Mouth Eats” features two half-brothers traveling to a capoeira festival. A 16th-century holistic martial art from the north of Brazil designed by slaves, capoeira is a ritualized form of survival combat that is also a dance, which provided artistic cover so that overseers didn’t realize their slaves were preparing for an uprising (at the end of the 19th century, the Brazilian government made capoeira illegal for a time). Within capoeira is a metaphor for the kind of masculinity Brinkley depicts: power, performance, ritual, communion, and play, each inseparable from the others.
The half-brothers at the center of the story, Carlos and Eric, orbit each other like twin stars. Brinkley uses his descriptions of them playing capoeira to undergird how one brother, the narrator, Eric, contrasts himself with his sibling as he reflects on their shared desires, their abusive father, and how each of them has lived with that shame. How men teach men about power, how a boy’s life becomes the raw material for manhood, how to let desire flow without allowing it to carry us away — it’s all there. The story’s final gestures suggest a wordless, perhaps more hopeful version of the ending of Toni Morrison’s Sula. It’s that good.
In these moments, Brinkley — like contemporary poets Geffrey Davis and Jericho Brown — opens space for readers to reconsider manhood and think about how we might build something different. Brinkley’s characters and their actions probe the questions at the heart of masculinity: Why do we often pick up the worst habits of the men and boys with whom we grow up? How do men of color navigate waters that are far more treacherous than those in which their white contemporaries swim? How do we find the lines between want and possession? How should we be brothers to one another? How should we love? What do we do, finally, with the space that is ours?
One of the strongest stories in the collection, “I Happy Am,” features a child protagonist participating in a noblesse oblige–inspired group expedition with his Catholic school classmates to be hosted by wealthy white suburbanites outside the city. Freddy’s classmates gas him up with their past experiences of being feted on palatial estates, but when they arrive at their destination it’s the most modest home in the neighborhood. Freddy dislikes “the sensation of having driven an hour from home only to arrive at a bigger version of the same place.” The surprises continue. Their hostess, Arlene, the lady of the house, is black, her skin “the same dark shade as his.”
He escapes the crabby nuns to explore Arlene’s home and stumbles upon a confusing sight: “[A] framed painting of a brown-skinned man with thick dark hair and a full beard. A faint light encircled his face, and he gazed gently skyward. It took several moments before Freddy realized that it was supposed to be a painting of Jesus.”
The mysteries deepen as he heads upstairs. He runs into Arlene in her bedroom and learns the source of her interest in hosting these boys. Though she has no kids of her own and has suffered miscarriages, she is again pregnant. She talks to Freddy about her desire for a child, invites him to touch her belly and guess the sex. The revelation stuns him, and her simple question — “Boy or a girl?” — provides the last line of dialogue in the story. But not the last action. Freddy’s young mind can handle robots and disappointing burgers, but this brush with the depths of another’s life, with the yearning and openness in Arlene’s question, will not let him be:
[It] spoke instead 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, and could only begin to make sense of them. This part of him, not yet grown, didn’t know the answer to her question, or to any questions that hid behind her question, and so it didn’t know how to reply. It did know that this, what was happening, was a thing he might never forget but for now it could hardly speak.
Brinkley’s stories offer the vivid mystery of life, the very best of what we might call verisimilitude. Sure, we have our own spaces, real and imagined, but they, like the stories in A Lucky Man, remain permeable, at the mercy of history and love and a past that’s not even past.
Evan McGarvey’s work has appeared in the New Republic, VICE Sports, and Pitchfork. He is the co-author of 2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle (Voyageur, 2013). He lives in Texas.