The best book you've never heard of
At first I thought, My God, this book is phenomenal! So much motion in the language, such immediate, immersive scene-setting—and the tension, right from the start! Just pages in, a bar fight leads to the slash of a knife and “muscles open[ing] like the Red Sea.” The mayhem spills into the streets of Harlem; and there’s a surprising amount of violence, some of it gruesome, which didn’t bother me, I was too distracted by the pacing—how’s the author generating so much speed and tumult?
Eventually I started having a few qualms. The description of a group of Arabs seemed awfully cartoonish, for example. But then it turned out the Arabs aren’t actually Arabs; they’re pretending to be Arabs. The caricature is deliberate, as is every other element of this expertly plotted gem: The Real Cool Killers, by Chester Himes. It’s hard to believe how much Himes accomplishes in this short book—only 159 pages. The plot is clever and surprising, the characters vivid, the setting palpable. I’m tempted to end this message here so you can go read it.
I also want to give S.A. Cosby a call, because he led me to The Real Cool Killers, listing it as a “favorite book no one else has heard of” in his New York Times By the Book interview. I let his recommendations in that interview guide much of my reading for the past month, and I think S.A. needs to know that we should form a book club, just the two of us. He can choose all the books; I’ll bring the iced tea and Levain cookies.
Here are some of the other novels I read because of him. I loved them all:
I started with his own, most recent crime novel, All the Sinners Bleed. I want to buy stacks of this book and start handing it out on the street corner, because it’s a page-turner with societal resonance and consequence. The protagonist is Titus Crown, the first Black sheriff in the history of the Virginia county where he grew up. At the start of the book, a beloved white schoolteacher is killed by a Black former student; then that student is killed by Titus’s deputies. Titus investigates, and we the readers get a vivid sense of what it would be like to be at the crossroads of clashing societal forces: Black/blue lives matter. Titus believes deeply in the importance of enforcing the law, and he feels viscerally injustices that have long been allowed by the law. Who doesn’t benefit from reading a book that compellingly conveys that perspective? (We’re talking about adults here. Not small children. The crimes are horrific.)
S.A. Cosby calls Jesmyn Ward “one of our most brilliant minds and one of the greatest writers of our generation,” so I also read her memoir, Men We Reaped. Good lord. This book—the story of five young men close to Ward, all of whom died within four years of each other for apparently unconnected reasons—is gorgeous in its prose and devastating in its effect. I tend to read books in a few sittings, diving in and not coming up for air, but I had to take this one a chapter at a time. The sentences are for savoring and the stories for mourning and remembering. I don’t know how she writes classic after classic, but I intend to read them all.
And now, last but far from least, Dennis Lehane. In response to the By the Book question “Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how),” S.A. Cosby writes, “Early morning, on my back deck, rereading the signed, weathered paperback of Darkness, Take My Hand, by Dennis Lehane.” I read Darkness, Take My Hand and agree that it’s terrific—chilling and atmospheric. But you know what I’d rather reread, even unsigned, in my womb chair in my eighth-floor apartment? Lehane’s latest novel, Small Mercies. It’s set in Boston, in the predominantly Irish American housing projects of “Southie,” in the summer of 1974, when racial tensions are at a peak because forced busing is scheduled to begin at the start of the school year. Protagonist Mary Pat Fennessy has spent her whole life in Southie. Her daughter, Jules, goes missing the same night that a young Black man is found dead in a nearby subway station. Mary Pat desperately searches for Jules as the neighborhood is set to explode into violence. As J. Courtney Sullivan puts it in her New York Times review of the book, “The take-no-prisoners hero of this novel is a pissed-off middle-aged mom, and it is a thrill to watch her burn it all down.” That alone is worth the read, but with Mary Pat, Lehane also gives us a complicated and realistic—and therefore useful—view of racial hatred, its origins, its unthinking perpetuation, and some possibilities for its evolution.
Small Mercies is an unusually powerful book. I recommended it to my brother, who couldn’t put it down. When he finished, he asked in a text, “What’s my next book?” I reeled off a reply with six options. He didn’t like that, he told me—mostly serious— on the phone later. He said it felt “flip.” You know those books that are so good, when you finish one you have to either find something equally great or read nothing at all while you’re still caught in its spell? Small Mercies is that kind of book.
Unless S.A. Cosby accepts my call, I think I’ll take a break from thrillers next month. Calm the systems, maybe read a little slow-paced nonfiction. I’ll keep you posted.