Hell of A Book
An Incisive take on being a Black in America
What grabs the reader by the throat, as he ploughs through Jason Mott's book, is the fact that even today, crime against blacks is till rampant. ‘Black lives matter’ may be trending on social media and intellectual discussions but the shocking truth is that they don’t matter to white Americans. Neel Prabhakar reviews 'Hell Of A Book.'
‘Is it possible to laugh while your heart is breaking?’
This comment by a reviewer, Lisa, on goodreads, gave me pause, as I searched for a worthy book to usher in the New Year (a ritual that I followed assiduously every year). She was talking about ‘Hell of a Book’ By Jason Mott, which was declared the winner of National Book Award for 2021. Decidedly intrigued by the comment, I ordered in my Kindle edition of the book. After a sumptuous dinner that my better half had prepared (she believed in bidding adieu to the old year in style) I settled down in my armchair with my book and a cup of hot cocoa and my trusty Alsatian, Sherlock, lazing on the warm rug beside me.
The book narrates a simple enough story. It is the story of a nameless protagonist, a writer who is on a hectic booze-fuelled promotional tour for his bestselling book. The start of the book does not impress. The book starts with this nameless writer, running down the corridor of a nameless hotel with a cuckolded stranger chasing him down. But as you read on, though a tad miffed, the story begins to grow on you. In fact, it is not one story but three closely intertwined tales. One is the story of a bestselling writer on a promotional tour that I have already mentioned. The second story is the story of The Kid, probably an imaginary figure, representing the young black killed in brutal police violence, who pops up time and again and becomes a friend and confidante to the author. The third story is the story of the little boy, Soot, whose ebony colour makes him the butt of jokes and some vile bullying by Caucasian peers. The author moves back and forth between these stories melding them so seamlessly that it appears to be one big, unified story with two subsumed plots.
However, more than the technicalities of plot layout, what grabs the reader by the throat is the fact that even today, a so-called progressive nation like America has not accepted blacks as a part of their culture. Crime against black is till rampant. ‘Black lives matter’ may be trending on social media and intellectual discussions but the shocking truth is that they don’t matter to white Americans. As the ‘Media Trainer’ in the book says, ‘The last thing people want to hear about is being Black.’ Blacks seem to be the marginalized community in America, living in perpetual fear of being hauled up by the police, bullied by peers or worse. In an interview, Jason Mott has honestly admitted that ‘a massive amount of its creation was simply the act of me trying to figure out my thoughts on life as a Black American.’
The book is not all doom and gloom though. The pot-shots at the publishing industry are wickedly funny and leave the reader in splits. The ‘Media Trainer’ gives the nameless author some ‘guru-gyan’ about how to write a book. He says, ‘Write about Love, Love and Disney Endings.’ The sardonic references to programmed scripts for author interviews, media handlers and promotional tours where booze flows, is a tongue-in-cheek takedown of the publishing industry.
But at the end of it all, as you close the book, you are left with a sense of heartbreak at how Blacks have been treated and are still being treated. There is also a sense of disbelief at the underbelly of our civilization, revealed for all to see. Astute, thought-provoking, honest. That’s what the book is.