“Hell of a Book” by Jason Mott — review
11/18/21 UPDATE: It rightly won the National Book Award!
How on earth do you review or even talk about such a devastatingly funny and shattering work of art? How can you begin to convey the nature of a story that tells the untellable?
I haven’t a clue. So instead I’ll tell a story I can tell:
About forty-five years ago I was grocery shopping in Food City, the long-gone supermarket at the corner of my block, West 70 Street, and Columbus Avenue. I was standing in the checkout line when an old pasty-faced White man came storming in, yelling, “Nigger! Niggers!” and slathering hate like a sudden tsunami of mucous. Like most of the people in the store, I was (and am) White. I think I stopped breathing, hoping he’d come nowhere near me and would leave soon. No management showed up to see that that happened. This is New York, they probably thought if they even noticed. Another whack job.
About a minute after the pasty-faced whack job entered, three little boys with bikes came trundling in, laughing and talking. They were maybe 10 and 8. Instantly the manager told them they couldn’t bring those bicycles into the store, so the two older boys sent the 8-year-old to stand with the bikes outside the entrance while the 10-year-olds picked up snacks.
I paid for my groceries, exited the store, and I think resumed breathing. But not for long. Thirty seconds behind me, the pasty-faced nut job exploded out of the store, and seeing the little boy with the bikes, yelled, “Nigger!” either spitting or doing it with such force that the child almost fell over. And then he, the man, took off.
This is not my story-it is the boy’s; but to completely tell it I have to say what I did: I about-faced, and took care of the little boy until his friends came out of the store. I told him all sorts of things about how the man was crazy and we were all just waiting for him to leave, and there was nothing wrong with the little boy and he should not for one second imagine that this craziness had anything to do with him. Then I asked permission to stand next to the boy until his friends came out. He nodded, speechless; in fact I don’t recall him ever saying a word. But I will never forget his shocked saucer eyes. And I will never forget his numb nod once his friends came out and I asked if he would be okay now. And I will never forget a moment of devastation I witnessed and the ripples of damage that came before it and would go on and on and on that I could do not one damned thing about.
This is not a story about me. It is a story about that boy.
And Jason Mott figured out how to tell it. My heart is both broken and grateful.
Originally published at https://www.betsyrobinson-writer.com.