Sunday, December 16, 2018

Short story review: Jamel Brinkley's 'A Family'

The best short stories are as rich and complex as any novel. They can contain a universe or a microcosm, a lifetime or an hour. They can be populated with complex characters rich in mixed motives and emotions. Such is the case with Jamel Brinkley's "A Family".

Curtis is back from prison, after hitting a woman with his car one night while drunk. He is watching Lena, who was the woman of his former best friend, Marvin, and her son. However, after 12 years in prison, Curtis is reconnecting to his city as much, if not more, than people. And the past is right with him every moment of his present:

After a while, he got up and strolled along the promenade in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The only other person he saw was a man with an unsettling face. The man's bouts of muttering formed clouds that flowered like visible emblems of his secret language before being pulled apart by the wind. ... Curtis huffed the name of his long departed friend -- my dead friend, he told himself soberly -- so he could see the wind take it, imagining that it too, along with the words steaming from the man's mouth, drifted off and seeded the East River. ... As the man prattled on, now some distance away, Curtis again said Marvin's name, which rose from his lips and hovered there for a moment, clean as an unstrung bone. 

He might also have said the name of the dead woman, the one he had struck with his car, the one who intruded on his dreams. But his life was for other things now, he'd been desperately telling himself, beautiful and wondrous things.

That I wondered at first if the son, Andre, was Curtis's son or Marvin's, and that Brinkley soon answered that question, shows the quiet way in which the reader learns the full picture. Brinkley is not the sort of author to hit the reader with info dumps. I liked filling in the spaces as a reader, especially after realizing Brinkley was not going to leave me in doubt in the long run.

Andre is Marvin's son. Marvin died as well, while he and Curtis were estranged. The reason for the estrangement, who was the one who started it and who resisted reconciling can be seen as major reasons why Curtis is watching Lena and Andre. It also plays into what happens after Lena brings Curtis into Andre's orbit.

What is perhaps inevitable happens, but what happens after that is not. To say more would be a spoiler, but the title is very important. The way Curtis and Lena tell each other the truth, and what they keep from each other, is shown in precise detail. The reader is in no doubt what is taking place, and what the repercussions would be if things were different.

"I'm not somebody you know," Curtis said. "I never was." ...
"You don't know me either," she said, and began to dress.

Curtis has been living with his mother. Life has not treated her well but it has not defeated her. Still, the ways in which it has tried to do that are shown masterfully, and those ways affect how she treats her son and their relationship. It's as much a part of this story about "A Family" as the Curtis-Lena-Andre portions. It's one of the reasons why this story is as rich and complex as a novel. It is a complete world.

But he liked the feeling of being near his mother now -- he liked her when she was asleep -- so he sat with a tall glass of water and forced his gaze onto the television screen.

Later, this scene comes to mind when Curtis and Andre are talking:

"What makes mothers the way they are?" Andre asked one day. ...
"They lose themselves and get all kinds of ridiculous," Curtis said. "Ain't no mystery to it."

The richness of these characters, what happens to them and what they do in this story made this work a wonderful introduction to Brinkley's writing. And it's not just the characters. Brinkley's descriptions put me where his characters are, to see and smell and hear and touch what they do, with no purple prose. Now that's a gift.

I discovered this story in the 2018 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited this year by Roxane Gay. Finding a story like this is one of the reasons why I buy this collection every year. And because of this introduction to Brinkley's work, I've got the short story collection in which "A Family" appears, A Lucky Man, on my wish list. It's a worthy finalist for the National Book Award (the winner will be announced on Wednesday).

Brinkley's work centers on themes of family, black men navigating their way through life and mass incarceration, and the setting of New York City. The thoughtfulness he put into the title alone shows the depth of care in Brinkley's writing. I look forward to reading what he writes, and hope it is plentiful. It is certainly abundant.

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and reprinted with permission

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