“Hell of a Book” by Jason Mott

You’d think it would be easy to write a hell of a book review for a book titled Hell of a Book (Dutton, 2021). It isn’t. Jason Mott pulls off a literary magic trick that’s hard to define. Mott manages to swirl humor, imagination and lyrical language through the grim story of a Black child killed by police. Can’t get much grimmer than that.

Hell of a Book takes the nonfiction clay of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and shapes an elegant yet whimsical vase. His fictional world teeters between the real and the surreal, between farce and tragedy. No wonder this novel won the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction! Why choose fiction instead of nonfiction as a vessel? To quote from the novel, “a good story was the only way to tell the truth.” Hell of a Book succeeds in giving readers both: a great story and the unvarnished truth, all without losing hope.

An unnamed Black author on a nationwide book tour serves as the unreliable narrator framing the story. The author has a condition, he explains. He can’t tell what is real and what is just his imagination running wild. Is he mentally ill? Drunk?  Damaged by a traumatic experience? Or just exhausted by the demands of the book tour? Despite the author’s grueling schedule of travels and interviews, he is supposed to be writing a second book. A publishing representative and bizarre media expert offer farcical guidance, adding to the tour’s surreal atmosphere.

The author claims he is telling us a love story. Not the kind of love story you think—even though he does have a few dates with various girls named Kelli, Kellie, Kelly, Keli—whoever. And he does have at least one hysterically funny sexual encounter. But that’s not the love story he is telling.

Hell of a Book is also the story of Soot, a Black child growing up in a small town in North Carolina. His parents taught him to be invisible to stay safe—but is safety possible for a Black male in America? Maybe not, yet Soot comes to believe in the power of stories to take away pain and offer “hope where there had been despair.”

Hell of a Book is also the story of The Kid, a Black boy who may or may not be real. Who are these Black children? What connection do they have to the narrator?

Sometimes, Mott shoves razor-sharp truth into the mouth of his narrator. Here’s a gem when the narrator is conversing with The Kid:

“We’re all afraid of being at the bottom of life’s shit stack. We’re all afraid of being poor, being injured, helpless, handicapped, all of the things that make us look at other people and say, ‘How bad. Somebody should do something to help them.’ The thing we’re most afraid of is being the ‘them’ in that equation.”

He can’t bring himself to talk to The Kid yet about the police, about race, about survival. He hates to destroy the child’s innocence. He does try to teach him to love his skin color, using a metaphor of an ebony peacock he sees (imagines?) nearby:

“Its inky plumage scintillates in the afternoon sun, refracting the light through the lens of darkness and shooting out something more beautiful than I’ve ever seen before. It looks the way jazz might if it had a form that you could see that wasn’t Miles Davis.”

Mott’s poetic language shines in this and other examples of the “Black is Beautiful” message.

However, touches of poetry, magical realism, and the narrator’s fantasy world cloak the novel’s dark truths. One fact is that jobs with swing shifts often contribute to early death.  And “only certain tax brackets get the luxury of knowing something’ll kill you and being able to choose not to do it.” Another truth the book reveals is the fear Blacks carry with them every day:

The Fear. That’s the thing that was really dangerous. It had a fist in my stomach and wasn’t about to let go. My whole body felt like it wasn’t mine anymore. Like maybe it had neve been mine. Like it might suddenly be taken away from me at any moment and there was nothing I could do about it. What’s worse, there was nothing I would ever be able to do about it.

That’s what the Fear really came down to. That’s what all of the other fears were derived from people of a certain skin color living in a certain place. But it wasn’t just a fear, it was a truth. A truth proven time and time again for generations. A truth passed down through both mouth and mandate, from lip-to-lip legislation. Certain bodies don’t belong to their inhabitants. Never have, never will again. A persistent, inescapable, and horrific truth known by millions of unsettled bodies. The Fear.

. . . Can’t ever forget that you don’t belong to yourself anymore, but to the hands, fists, cuffs, and bullets of a stranger.

Back to the love story the narrator says he is telling. No, it isn’t a happy-ever-after ending with one of the Kellys. More like a twist on the myth of Narcissus—one you should read and discover for yourself. Hell of a Book is more than one hell of a book illuminating one of this country’s most fundamental social issues. Hell of a Book is a truly gorgeous novel.

Jason Mott lives in southeastern North Carolina. He has a BFA in Fiction and an MFA in Poetry, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His poetry and fiction have appeared in various literary journals. He was nominated for a 2009 Pushcart Prize award and Entertainment Weekly listed him as one of their ten “New Hollywood: Next Wave” people to watch. He is the author of two poetry collections: We Call This Thing Between Us Love and “…hide behind me…” His first novel was The Returned.

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