Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott

This is a novel about a writer on a book tour. The writer is kind of a jerk; in his opening scene he’s running naked down a hotel corridor because the husband of the woman he’s just jumped into bed with has burst in on them. Who the woman is isn’t important: we won’t see her or hear about her after the next five pages of the book. The writer is not good with women, not good with relationships in general, not good with people. He’s also not good with himself. He’s dazed and confused by his own book tour and unsure what his book is about, though he knows his job is to go to a bunch of events, give interviews, and agree with everyone who tells him it’s a hell of a book.

This is also a novel about a young boy nicknamed Soot, a Black boy in the American south with skin so very black it makes him notable — and a target — to everyone, including other Black kids. Soot’s parents try to teach him to become invisible, and when it seems that sometimes he literally can, you get your first hint that this is not a straight-ahead realistic novel.

The third main character, besides Soot and the writer (whose chapters alternate with each other), is The Kid, a young Black boy who mysteriously appears to the writer (who sometimes has hallucinations, so he’s not too surprised by this) even though others can’t see him.

This is a novel about race, about Blackness and anti-Black violence in America. The writer is a Black man who has tried not to centre race in his writing, who is consciously trying not to be a “Black writer.” But when his book tour coincides with the shooting of a Black teenager (who is, and is not, the “Kid” who appears in his hallucinations) and a series of protests about police brutality, he finds himself having to address racial issues, and his own muddied memory of the past.

All of this makes the novel sound more linear, and more coherent, than it is. Several reviews I’ve read of Hell of a Book, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in the US, have spent a lot of ink trying to parse out whether Soot, the writer, and the Kid are all the same person, and pointing out where their stories different. But that’s wasted effort, in my opinion — this isn’t that kind of book. Of course they’re the same person, and also, of course, they aren’t – they are Black men, and boys, and teenagers in America, confronting or trying not to confront the realities of racism. If you let go of trying to “make sense” of this story and just read it and experience it, scene by scene, it’s powerful. Trying to map out the plot or figure out who these characters “really are” just gets in the way of experiencing the novel.

I will say that one part of the book that didn’t land for me nearly as well as the focus on racism and the Black experience, is all the humour (?) around the surreal, disorienting book tour. I’ve read an interview where Mott talked about how it’s based on his own experiences on book tour, how you get so jet-lagged and disoriented by travel that you don’t know who you’re talking to and the canned responses you give about your book to every interview become almost meaningless. I’m sure there’s a rich vein of humour to be mined here but as one of the legion of small-press authors who can only fantasize about ever being sent on a paid, cross-country book tour, I have to say that there’s a whiff of “Gee, I’d sure like to have your problems” for me in reading about the rigours of a book tour.

However, this was a minor quibble, and one that’s probably personal to me and people in my situation — the book is, after all, not really about a writer on a book tour. It’s about a man who’s in the public eye, who communicates for a living, yet who has in a sense made his real self as silent and invisible as Soot on the school bus: hiding from bullies; hiding from his own past; hiding from the harsh truth of being a Black man living in a racist world.

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