In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, winner of the 2021 National Book Award, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “In Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, a Black author sets out on a cross-country publicity tour to promote his bestselling novel. That storyline drives Hell of a Book and is the scaffolding of something much larger and urgent: since Mott’s novel also tells the story of Soot, a young Black boy living in a rural town in the recent past, and The Kid, a possibly imaginary child who appears to the author on his tour.”
In Hell of a Book by Jason Mott, an unnamed author goes on a book tour across the country, converses with a possible figment of his imagination, and a boy named Soot deals with bullying and loss. Each of these characters must reflect on and reckon with their Blackness, and Mott manages to execute these in often comedic ways. In one of the many meta moments of the novel, the narrator/author seemingly discovers that he’s Black. This triggers several conversations about his life, his skin color, and his book with several charming side-characters. Echoing the humor sprinkled throughout, Mott manages to simultaneously ground his world in current events like Black Lives Matter protests and keep it suspended in the strange interactions surrounding those events. In a similar move to amplify that floating nature of the narrative, every person he meets raves about his book, but the author hardly even knows what it’s about. “Hell of a book,” he and everyone around him says, but specifics are nonexistent on the page. At the same time, the novel explores the story of Soot, a young Black boy who wants to (and can?) turn invisible. Soot more immediately navigates the trauma of bullying, loss, and what it means to him to be Black in America—something the author also must process. At its core, Hell of a Book is about love of family, of self, and how to protect and preserve that love.
Hell of a Book is smart, immersive, cinematic and hilarious. There is a real electricity to the voice: both a moral urgency and an insistence on entertaining. Mott miraculously plants his novel very firmly in the present moment and American history, the novel calling equal parts to Ralph Ellison as it does to, say, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. It reminds us that, in all the heated urgency that was 2020 (and, less so, unfortunately, 2021) American racism—and our often-scripted responses to it—is nothing new. The novel coerces us into the uncomfortable question: how much has changed, really, from when Ellison published his Invisible Man in 1953 to Mott’s publication of Hell of a Book (featuring, it’s worth noting, the invisible and possibly imaginary character, The Kid) in 2021? Still, the book is not perfect. And, you know, I refuse to play the grouchy highbrow critic undermining a good and serious book for its playfulness. But the irony of the book, its blunt awareness of its artifice, its often-detached rendering of our writer-protagonist… there’s something about it that stopped me from feeling as invested and moved as I wanted to be. The novel indulges in its cheekiness. There is something thrilling about voice and dialogue to be sure, but there are moments nonetheless that, instead of deepening theme or advancing narrative, just sort of… linger. Which I mostly didn’t mind: Mott can damn well write. But there are sections of the novel that feel prolonged, indulgent, lost in conceit and voice and narrative frenzy.
Which is not to dismiss the fact that this is a very good book. I had a lot of fun reading it; I felt challenged and stimulated by the questions it asks about author and audience, the commodification of a writer’s identity, the ways our collective liberal consciousness confronts and ignores police brutality, the ways our collective humanity becomes shallowed by hackneyed news-cycle cliches. It’s funny: I’d probably like this book a whole lot more if I didn’t come in thinking, So what’s this National Book Awarder all about? It’s an interesting thing, how these accolades color our expectations and reading experience. What really matters is this: Hell of a Book is indeed a very good book—and despite its flaws, maybe even a great one.
Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, more than anything else, is a series of old stories framed in new ways. A successful writer on his first book tour self-destructs while grappling with alcoholism, mental illness, and a past he doesn’t want to remember or acknowledge; a Black boy with uniquely dark skin tries to find his place in a country inundated by racially-motivated police shootings; a book reckons with itself as a story and stories as reality.
At its best, the novel uses its humor and metatextualness to tackle familiar political and human concerns in a way that feels fresh. The unnamed author’s voice zings along like a go-kart, often laugh-out-loud funny and always aware of itself as voice, just as the book is always aware of itself as a book—the author’s novel, for instance, is also titled Hell of a Book, and he’s often unable to distinguish reality from fiction. Other standout examples include a scene wherein the author abruptly realizes he’s Black—which in addition to being hilarious raises some hard-hitting questions about identity and presentation—and one in which he’s confronted by a police officer responsible for killing a Black boy who refuses to take responsibility for what he did. “And that,” diagnoses the author, “[is] the whole problem.” The boy—nicknamed Soot—takes over for alternating chapters; these passages serve to ground the book in a childhood where being Black is a dangerous reality Soot’s parents continually try to shield him from, until they can’t.
At its worst, Hell of a Book gets lost in its own sense of untetheredness. Toward the conclusion, as the author’s break from reality becomes complete, some of the metatextual elements start to feel too familiar, and the characters Mott has spent the bulk of a novel molding lose some of their definition as people. It’s hard to feel by this point that they aren’t simply stand-ins for a generalized Black American experience, especially as the text calls in to question specifics of those characters’ histories and personalities. As purposeful as this may be, it also undermines one of the novel’s central theses: that people killed in the US as a result of their Blackness are first and foremost people with bodies and minds and communities. Although not every move Mott makes pays off, make no mistake—Hell of a Book grapples with race and violence in the US in a way that demands you pay attention. It’s imperfect, but also layered, timely, and very much worth reading.
Benjamin Van Voorhis
Curated by Brandon Williams