This is a story about a broken man’s desperate attempt to piece together his part of the puzzle that is the American Dream. Unemployed and virtually homeless, readers will follow his last four days in the city, as he tries to find a place for his family and tuition money for his children’s education. The pressure to provide these things is overwhelming and the nameless narrator must succeed, or risk losing his wife and their three young children. In the concrete jungle of New York City, he has two options: fight or flight.
Ruminations on his current situation combined with flashbacks reveal how this man became broken, and arguably how this man was doomed to be broken from the start. He views himself as a social experiment, and it’s clear he feels race is a defining variable. For many who don’t usually read things that offer racial discourse, his infusion of the race issue might be slightly off-putting. In this book, blackness and whiteness matter; it matters when he tries to find an apartment, when he plays golf, in his relationships, when he gets coffee. It matters.
I found the first-person rambling/stream-of-consciousness to be poetic, raw, intellectual and true. Sometimes I felt bad for him. Sometimes I could relate. And other times I was frustrated with him. I mean, you wonder how someone so talented and with the opportunities he’s had, can become so broken. Every once in awhile, he’d become too hermetic–I couldn’t get into his head. For example, it was endearing to hear him talk about his kids, but sad to hear him talk about leaving them forever…You want to root for him, but there’s hopelessness.
I did raise an eyebrow at a few things…like why couldn’t his wife work too? and why couldn’t his children go to public school until they were more financially stable to send them to private school? I couldn’t help but think he was trying to maintain some remnant of the wasp lifestyle for his wife. When you’re broken spiritually and financially, maintaining an image is usually pretty low on the priority list. And yet I know this was intentional–another challenge of marrying a blue-blood. I also thought it was interesting that he kept mentioning his Irish and Native American heritage because it didn’t really help him out. It didn’t make him any less black…maybe it made him more acceptable to his wife and their white friends…I don’t know, it was just odd. I guess it was another struggle with identity.
Here are a few quotes (of many) that I liked:
It’s a bad idea to put on music while trying to make a plan. It may be that I need to stop listening altogether. Dylan makes me feel alienated and old; hip-hop. militant. Otis Redding is too gritty and makes me think about dying young. Robert Johnson makes me feel like catching the next thing smoking and Satan. Marley makes me feel like Jesus. (26)
I know that drunks, madmen, and corpses make for lousy dinner guests. But I also believe that there’s a them and they believe that they are good, and I know that if I had what they have–privilege, money, and numbers–I’d tear this fucking place down. (124)
There’s a limited amount of space for people, any people anywhere. And on the inside of any powerful institution, especially for people of color, that space gets smaller and stranger. Most white folks believe the reason you’ve come in is to uplift your people. But you can’t bring your people inside, except compressed into a familiar story that’s already been sanctioned. And you wouldn’t be there in the first place unless you were a recognizable type: the noble savage, Uncle Tom, the Afro-Centric, the Oreo, the fool. (147)
Thomas’ antihero acknowledges the subtleties of the race question in everyday life. It’s a very powerful and engaging narration. If you don’t like to discuss race (for whatever reason) I don’t think you’ll be able to appreciate this book.