A Lucky Man

Jamel Brinkley

Serpent’s Tail


This debut collection of short stories comes highly recommended, having made the short list of the US National Book Awards in 2018. In an interview the author Jamel Brinkley, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, says he likes the lifelike ‘untidiness’ which he claims a short story can afford, a quality which one is more likely to find in a novel. This ‘untidy’ viewpoint  sets him apart perhaps from many more structured story writers. It could be perceived as a flaw, a type of laziness perhaps where some of the stories appear to meander with little plot development and a surfeit of minutiae. Or on the other hand, and maybe more convincingly, it could be seen as a deliberate style of Brinkley’s in his attempt to truly reflect life.

The nine stories, although not formally linked, embrace memorable emotional worlds caught in the frenetic moments of modern living and set in the ungentrified areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx with generally a common protagonist who is a young African-American male.

Many of the themes are about growing up and trying to overcome the obstacles created by coming from an underprivileged background. In the story I Happy Am, for example, with eyes attempting to blink away the world on an outing for city kids to the country, the penury of their existence is etched in their untutored behaviour. And living without a father in J’ouvert, 1996, vulnerable characters, unsure of their masculinity, wonder about gays and girls ‘with one foot on the sidewalk and the other on the street’.

Brinkley reveals an authentic New York and its underclass in succinct street cred jargon. This is evidenced wonderfully in No More Than a Bubble, where the protagonist, while out on the town with his friend, distinguishes between the real life slick atmosphere of a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown on campus which was only practising, and where ‘you could half-ass it or go extra hard, either play the wall or go balls-out boot-hound, and there would be no actual stakes, no real edge to the consequences’.

The setting of a bar in the final story Clifton’s Place is a microcosm of the world where all human life ebbs and flows. And all that needs to be said to illustrate the dangers inherent in city living is that the vulnerable artist Ellis, as she walks through the streets homeward from the bar, has her pepper spray ready.

The missing father is a motif running through some of the stories as is burgeoning sexuality and the passing of time and the disillusion of life. There is ambition and the expectations of parents for their children, always demanding  ‘to work forever’ as in the story Wolf and Rhonda with the added fear of the young protagonist losing his identity by carrying the burden of trying to conform to white people’s ways.

There is a struggle with obedience for a boy of fifteen in A Family, and the seeking of perfection in Everything the Mouth Eats which delineates how ‘we are drawn to masters’. An impressionable young man from a dysfunctional family in ‘the ceaseless drive to be complete’ is taken in by a cult. He has a half brother over whom he feels guilty for not minding, an abusive father and a demanding mother. So the call to leave all the angst behind and surrender oneself to Happyland is tempting where you need not worry any more and all the thinking can be done for you.

Published in the Irish Examiner, 05/10/2019



Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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