A Lucky Man
by Jamel Brinkley
240 pp. Graywolf Press. $26.00
In books such as Less Than Zero or Winesburg, Ohio when the characters are all affected by problems (nihilism and narcissism, and mob mentality and provincialism, respectively) their reactions are used as critiques of their milieu/generation. In A Lucky Man, Jamel Brinkley’s debut short story collection that follows black men and black boys from Brooklyn and the Bronx, the conflicts come off as specific personal conflicts that the author constantly assigns to multiple characters to help him come to terms with it. There is nothing wrong with using writing therapeutically, but when recurring aspects such a perverted father and a largely absent mother become repetitive, you start wondering whether you even started reading a new story.
To name one particular example, the father in “No More Than a Bubble” and “A Lucky Man” are almost the same person, commit the same problems (obsessions with women’s bodies), and you know how the story is going to end 3 pages in.
Most of the stories follow a formula: introduction to the main character, see him interact with someone and/or walk around, a few flashbacks to explain why the main character is the way he is, and then an ambiguous conclusion. There were times when I thought that Brinkley didn’t trust the reader to get the source of the main character’s tragedy when it was perfectly expressed the first time in dialogue, and decided to repeat it until it stuck. “That’s one of my most vivid memories, but I didn’t understand a thing about it until later…But I didn’t really understand it until a lot later” is less of a quote from one of Brinkley’s characters and more like the mission statement of the collection.
What I wanted from A Lucky Man was a diverse–preferably not ironic–collection about masculinity and its nuances. But what I got was nothing special story wise so I had to focus on the Brinkley’s prose itself.
The Brinkley’s descriptions reminded me of a Christmas tree drooping because too many ornaments have been placed on it: beautiful but overwhelming. There are some stories during which you just want the Christmas tree to fall
While I normally think using poetic language to discuss the mundane makes any story better, in Brinkley’s case, it gets annoying. “A band of sunlight traced a white line along Sulay’s cheek and shone on her head of gathered curls, reddening them, blanching the loose, trembling strands and the wisps at her nape.”
In some of the stories such as “J’ouvert, 1996” (the best story in the collection) and “I Happy Am” Brinkley establishes a consistent voice. In “J’ouvert, 1996” we hear the angst and anger of the 18 year old narrator (“All I wanted was fifteen bucks to go to the barbershop, but the thought of asking for it made me feel like punching a wall.”) and in “I Happy Am” we see the world through the imagination young, shy kid. By the end of the story you just want to hug him.
This consistent voice is attempted in the other stories but gets lost a lot. In “No More Than a Bubble,” the narrator, a man looking back on a college party, inserts too much of commentary on his memory instead of letting it play out. After spending a few pages in college student vernacular, you get these blocks of out-of-place (and pretentious) descriptions. Here is one egregious example: “He had come to New York from West Oakland with certain notions regarding life out here, that the city’s summer heat and dust, and its soot-encrusted winter ice, were those of the cultural comet, which he ached to witness if not ride. Because of these notions, he manipulated gestures and disguises, pushed the very core of himself outward so that you could see in his face and in the flare of his broad nostrils the hard radiance of the soul-stuff that some people chatter on about.” After 10 pages of this, you begin to wonder if the term short stories should be a requirement instead of a description.
“Everything the Mouth Eats” should have been an essay because its story of two brothers coming back together over Capoeira was heartwarming but the references and potential symbolism about Capoeira lost me.
“Wolf and Rhonda” and “Clifton’s Place” are the two most explicit stories about one of the central themes of the book: coming to terms with the past. The former is about a high school reunion on the eve of the closing of the high school and the later is about gentrification and growing old told in the context of the patrons of a local bar. I preferred these past reflections told in the present to the flashback ridden stories. They felt more natural. They remind you that life stories can be told in wrinkles and speech patterns.
I think Brinkley should write a novel on the same themes he attempted to address in his stories. A densely packed short story can be expanded into a novel and I believe that Brinkley has the ability to do that. But for now his stories remain a field full of rocks that you have to exhaustively clear to find a flower or two.