In the age of the #MeToo Movement and the worldwide cultural shift, at least in awareness, to the ways in which gender and sexuality inform our experience of living in the world, Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection, A Lucky Man, comprised of tenderly poignant narratives of boys becoming men, of fractured intimacy, of masculinity as learned performance, is vital and necessary.
Brinkley’s brilliant interrogation of what it means to be a man, specifically in the context of the lives of young men separated from their fathers, points to an essential blind spot in our current discourse. We are living in a time where the narrative around men can feel singular or reductive: A man is either a savior or a villain. That is not the way that humanity works. People are more nuanced. This becomes even more salient when we add the dimension of race. Men of color are most often portrayed in popular culture as evil, as aggressor. This is a false narrative built upon a history of racism which perpetuates mass incarceration and violence.
A Lucky Man is not a book about race, it is a book about longing, about intimacy. A collection about navigating the space between adolescence and adulthood, about understanding the powers and limitations of the body, about the ways in which we let traumas fester when we leave them unattended. Brinkley uses his profound gift of language to speak for characters who themselves do not have the words to express their pain. The unsaid is perhaps what is coursing most vigorously through the veins of this collection. It vibrates underneath the surface, it threatens to erupt, to dismantle the construction of normalcy that we cling to, to retain order; to avoid confronting our demons.
These masterful stories build gradually; they compel us to slow down, to give ourselves over to them. In the collection’s standout, “Everything the Mouth Eats” Brinkley’s description of capoeira is perhaps also an instruction and meditation for how A Lucky Man begs to be read:
Part of entering the world of capoeira angola is a constant training in vigilance….I realize 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 vapor 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?
It is the subject of family that Brinkley returns to again and again to remind us that we are products of our upbringing. That the young man looking to get laid in the collection’s opening story: “No More Than A Bubble,” was once a little boy idolizing his father. It is that same hunger for comfort, that the boy felt when his parents separated, that returns in the form of his sexuality: a desire to be held, to be made whole.
In the collection’s most moving stories, Brinkley lets us sit inside childhood memories, allows us to enter into the ugliest and most fragile remembrances that his characters suppress in order to find ways to persist. We are all holding our brokenness. What is most astonishing about A Lucky Man is how Brinkley carves a space for men to examine theirs in the presence of humor, sensuality, adolescent curiosity and grief. He lets all of these deeply human experiences coalesce.
In “J’ouvert, 1996” the narrative opens with a young man’s desire to go to the same barbershop as his father. He has never been to a barbershop before and his longing to enter into a lineage of “clever men, grooming each other’s masculinity” becomes a way for him to acknowledge his yearning for his father who has since been incarcerated. The story develops into a meditation on the ways in which the narrator and his younger brother process their father’s absence. The younger brother, Omari, wears an owl mask and is accompanied by an imaginary friend, who Brinkley beautifully renders by describing Omari as holding out an outstretched arm grasping nothing. His older brother, our narrator Ty, does not have the luxury of pretend, he has outgrown it, he has already experienced too much pain.
The collection, while startlingly authentic, also dips heavily into imagination and escapism to construct fantasies that have the power to transport characters, at least temporarily, outside of their circumstances. We see this in “I Happy Am” where the young protagonist imagines himself as a robot. “In the cartoons and movies, robots could see through walls and across long distances or sense a body by its heat or detect the smallest thing that was wrong. Freddy tried to open himself in this way, as he did when his mother locked herself in her room or stayed out at night a lot later than she said she would.” As the story progresses, with a summer camp excursion brimming with promise that quickly deflates, the title folds into itself: I Happy Am. It is a happiness that can never be, a state that for this child, in his experience of mounting disappointments, feels unattainable.
Brinkley has mastered the art of storytelling, most explicitly, with regard to pacing and scene setting. His descriptions are lush, vivid, and precise. We can see the streets he’s rendering, but more so, we can feel the heat of the sun on a bare back, we can taste the greasy potato chips, we can smell the urine in the elevator shaft. His control over the shape of these stories is remarkably well-done. They are sculpted with tension and infused with levity. Throughout, we are constantly bracing for viciousness, for emotional or physical eruption, but instead of gratuitous chaos, we are met with the anticipation of loss and pain, and that is far more affecting. It is far more human, meditating in the space of reckoning, with small moments of violation and the tiniest glimmers of connection.
In “Everything the Mouth Eats” Brinkley dissects all we think we know about masculinity, about brotherhood, about childhood innocence. The story slowly builds upon the complexities of familial love and ownership. Throughout, there is a tragic refrain: “De quien tú eres?” a question the narrator’s stepfather continually poses to both of his sons. This inquiry began in childhood and manifests into a compulsive and violent attempt to lay claim upon a child who does not identify as that man’s son. In a collection so full of longing for parental presence and love, that forceful effort to erase the biological father, and the subsequent harrowing violation that occurs, wounds the reader astoundingly. It evokes a pain that stings long after the book is set down.
Recently, Junot Diaz published an essay in The New Yorker about his personal history with sexual assault. A public discourse on victimization and perpetrations of sexual violence ensued. The reactions to Diaz’s piece have spanned from solidarity and gratitude to intense fury. Diaz’s piece is complicated for a number of reasons, including the suggestion that it both implicates and absolves him from guilt. I bring it up here because in A Lucky Man, Brinkley tackles the intergenerational construction of masculinity, particularly in communities of color, that Diaz invokes. If we temporarily extract Diaz, the individual, from the conversation, we can focus our attention on the intensity of the response. On our societal reluctance to speak openly about sexual violence, particularly when that violence is inflicted on men. Violation is believed to be in opposition to power and strength. How can we rewrite that narrative?
A Lucky Man begins to do just that. It is an urgent collection that compels us to reconsider the ways we understand manhood, that beautifully articulates the comingling of grief and abandonment that is felt when boys are separated from their parents. When children grow up without hope. In “J’ouvert, 1996” as the narrator awaits his haircut, performed haphazardly by his mother in their living room, he laments: “I had probably just stumbled again into that stagnant puddle of mud: belief. It was silly to think good things could possibly happen, but I had no choice.” This collection gives a deeply human and deeply affecting account of living in the world, of searching for connection and longing for love. A Lucky Man demands our attention. Few works in the frenetic energy of the modern moment are capable of capturing us as fully. Brinkley’s prose, the ferocity and authenticity of his narratives do; they astound and wound.
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Reviewed by Jenessa Abrams