The Ballad of Black Tom

black-tomThe Short Version: Charles “Tommy” Tester is a hustler in Harlem in 1924. He takes care of his dad and makes an okay life for himself – but after he delivers a most mysterious package, he becomes increasingly caught up in a world of strange happenings. After he’s invited to play a white man’s party in Queens, he disappears – only to reappear as something far darker and far less himself…

The Review: I was reading the transcript of a Fresh Air interview with Victor LaValle around when this book came out, where he was saying that he didn’t quite register Lovecraft’s racism when reading his stories as a kid. I didn’t register it either – in fact, it’s been so long since I’ve actually read a story by Lovecraft that I only became conscious of the issue when it started to become a major cultural topic of conversation. Lovecraft’s unspeakable horrors have filtered through generations of writers now and so it’s sometimes hard to remember that Cthulhu came from a single mind; the Elder Gods etcetera have transcended their creator. But when you have to come back to Lovecraft himself today, it’s impossible to miss how horrible he was. The story that inspired LaValle’s novella, “The Horror of Red Hook”, is one that features that horribleness right there for all to see.

But LaValle’s novella serves as a marvelous example of how we, as a culture, grapple with artists whose imaginations we admire but whose personal politics/behavior is abhorrent. As the dedication says, there are “conflicted feelings” here – but those are exactly the kinds of feelings that can make great art. And LaValle is at his absolute best with this strange and captivating little tale.

We’re introduced to a young black man in Harlem in 1924. He’s a grifter, but the kind of charismatic grifter who you can’t help but get behind. If you’re suckered by his shtick, well, you probably deserved it. Tommy ventures out of Harlem early in the novel, out into Queens – a Queens that looks rather different from the Queens of today, mind you, where more languages are spoken than anywhere else in the world – and he’s quickly on his guard. The shifts in his body language, in his behavior, in his thinking; they’re all the signs of a man who knows how to survive in a world that does not value his contributions or his existence. Add to this a dash of the arcane and supernatural – a world on top of ours that doesn’t give a flying frak about any of our existences – and Tommy walks a fine line. But he does it well and he’s surviving and so what could go wrong?

Of course, things go wrong. But while the supernatural terrors are delightful and certainly spooky as hell, LaValle is also (because how could you not, today?) writing about the terror of being a black man in America. After Tester’s father is killed (shot by a trigger-happy and vicious cop who thought the man’s guitar was a gun), LaValle delivers one of the most gutwrenching passages I think I’ve read this year:

A fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naive.
[…]
What was indifference compared to malice?
“Indifference would be such a relief,” Tommy said.

It’s true of 1924 and it’s true of 2016 and LaValle proves (again) that he’s a writer of the first caliber by writing a tale that is gripping on the story level and deeply impactful on the intellectual/emotional level. Tommy has no control over his life and even the moments where he tries to wrestle some from the world, he often ends up losing it. It’s no surprise that he… well, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, his anger at the injustices of the world helps him to find some measure of, well, cosmic indifference.

It’s a little hard not to talk about the back half of the novel without spoiling things, so I’ll just go so far as to say that I found LaValle’s inventiveness and his authorial joy to be infectious. Little things like this — “This how you hustle the arcane. Skirt the rules but don’t break them.” — just light me up. Suydam’s house and the strange things that happen on those dark evenings are the stuff of delightful nightmares. Even the way the back half of the book (following Malone, the detective of the original tale, instead of Tester) and the way it begins to line up with the first half… there is a great structural pleasure to this tale and honestly it felt more pleasing than LaValle’s last two novels (which, don’t get me wrong, I did deeply enjoy but didn’t quite fully adore).

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. It’s a reclamation at the same time as it is a hat tip, taking on the legacy of a complex and complicated cultural deity and forcing that legacy into rack with the present while also putting the author’s own voice into the mix. People adapt and update Lovecraft all the time, but I’ve never felt it done so potently and intelligently – and necessarily – as Victor LaValle does here. The SFF community has weathered some difficult conversations of late about race, gender, sex, class, and the role of “political” content in the genres – but the rational and intelligent sides have begun to prevail. This is one of the great modern SFF stories because it can stand alongside Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me as an examination of the black experience in America. It just so happens that it has unspeakable horrors from another dimension and is well-read over a gray Halloween morning.

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