'Hell of a Book' by Jason Mott
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
A Black writer, whose name we never learn, is on a book tour for his wildly successful debut novel. It's called, 'Hell of a Book' which is in some ways the inside joke you as reader will become a part of. Soon you will see that it doesn't matter what the title of the book is, just as it doesn't matter what the writer's name is. He is a generic Black man, who is generically successful in his career. And part of the reason for that success we learn is that he's been "media trained" to "keep Blackness out of it." "It" being the dog-and-pony show he has to do to promote his work and usher it comfortably into the mainstream consciousness. He has to come across as not particularly aggrieved, not particularly ... well, "Black". Listen ... when I tell you this is a thing, believe me--one's ability to succeed as a Black person in America is strongly correlated to one's ability to make white people comfortable with you. So... unnamed writer does the rounds, talking about his book, but never really hearing himself speak because he has become an automaton, stripping the uniquely Black aspects of his work and experience from his work and experience, so that he can succeed.
Anyway, so, this generic author of a generically successful book is on this book tour, traveling from city to city and having shallow one-night-stands with women he meets, and drinking far too much when snippets of news reach him about the police shooting of a ten-year-old Black boy. The writer, either by happenstance or design, manages to avoid hearing the kid's name, or the exact circumstances of his death. He doesn't want to hear because to know will be to confront things in his own past that he has studiously avoided by drinking, having casual sex and being glib and superficial in just about every interaction he has with other people. Just as the writer begins to notice civil unrest breaking out around the country in protest over the shooting, an apparition of a Black boy, very dark in complexion, so startlingly dark his skin "seems to absorb light" comes to the writer, and becomes his unseen and not altogether unwelcome companion on the book tour.
Through this mysterious boy, who he comes to think of as "The Kid" the writer slowly begins to reckon with his own story, his own pain and the painstaking effort he's labored under to eliminate from his consciousness all knowledge about the countless anonymous Black people who suffer violence simply because of their race. This reckoning is accelerated when his agent informs him that this time, he simply must talk about his Blackness. The boy's death has become a national story and suddenly, the writer's Blackness has currency and value. Whiplashed by this demand to center those things about himself and his experience that he has been literally trained to suppress (and not to mention the appearance of a kid no one else can see), the writer unravels.
I LOVED this book, because it was humorous and poignant and tragic and thoughtful but also because it expresses perfectly the knotty and sometimes unanswerable questions that some Black creatives face about their work--to feel, or not to feel? Express what they feel, or to squelch it in order to broaden their "reach" and appeal? Invite in the pain of the world in one's work, or not? And of course, there are the other, underlying deeper questions about Black humanity and its value or lack thereof. This is a hard one to review because some of the most extraordinary things about it are things that I can't describe without spoiling it for you, but I'll just say this: it entertained me, and moved me and made me think. And those are the best of books.
Note: There's some magical realism here, but I PROMISE you, even if that's not your jam, this book delivers.