At 153 pages, one can get through The Ballad of Black Tom in an afternoon, but the issues that author Victor LaValle raises will stay with you long beyond that. This is a fantasy/horror novella set in 1924 New York City. The main characters are in touch with the mystical realm, but their interests in it will lead to horrors beyond imagination. There will be monsters, and some are of their own making. Though set in the ‘20s, LaValle’s story is a brilliant commentary on America’s history of racial disparity and injustice.
The main character Charles Thomas Tester (Tom) is a 20-year-old African American living with his ailing father in Harlem. Tom’s father Otis is only 41 but the combination of the death of his wife plus years of punishing labor have taken a heavy toll. Tom declines his father’s offer to find him honest work in the construction business and instead finds jobs acquiring magic-related items on behalf of customers with cash. While Otis stays in their run down apartment and plays guitar, Tom uses the case to carry a tome, which seems to involve some sort of dark magic, to an unknown buyer in Queens. Usually, Tom’s clients are more local and it’s easier for him to be “invisible” among other people of color. As he makes his way outside his familiar community, however, he stands out more and more. After successfully completing this job, Tom decides that he can risk a return to Queens so as to make a little money as a busker. Tom sings and plays guitar a bit (and poorly), but he figures in Queens the novelty of his act might be lucrative. And he does get the attention of a wealthy, albeit strange, man named Mr. Suydam, who hires him to play at a party at his home. Suydam has big bucks and Tom figures he and his father could live for a year or more on the pay he will make, and so he readily agrees. Unfortunately, Tom has also drawn the attention of a police detective and a private investigator who are also interested in Mr. Suydam.
Tom, Suydam and detective Malone all possess a unique sensibility. These characters can perceive a world beyond human senses, a mystical realm. Yet their behaviors based on this sensibility are quite different and this is what makes The Ballad of Black Tom such a compelling read. In the hands of author LaValle, this special ability and the way characters act upon it also demonstrates the ways people react to social injustice, particularly racism. Suydam is rich, white, and powerful. He can be strange and quirky with impunity, for, as Tom thinks, “A wealthy man’s reality is remade at will.” Malone is a police officer and also white. His usual beat is in a part of town called Red Hook, which is full of non-European immigrants, ie, people of color, some of whom have not legally entered the country. His job is to find these illegal immigrants, and so when he patrols Red Hook, he tries to observe and listen without drawing attention to himself. Malone sees racism on the job, especially when working with the private eye, but he isn’t moved to do anything about it. In Red Hook, he turns a blind eye to petty crimes he sees, and believes he blends in, but he also knows that he is safe there because everyone knows he is a cop. Suydam sees the racial inequality of New York and the power of the mystical world, and he would find a way to unleash this power in the real world. Malone is curious about the mystical world in an intellectual way, to satisfy his own personal interests. Tom, on the other hand, has a very practical view of the mystical world. It exists but there is danger in it. He cannot stop people from pursuing their interest in it but he can make a profit from it and perhaps try to mitigate the damage they would do.
As the plot, which involves acquiring secret knowledge and unleashing it in order to destroy the current order, reaches its crescendo, each character makes choices that contribute to violence, destruction, death and horror. It is incredible to read. The final confrontation between two of the characters features chilling action and stunning dialogue about monsters, how they are made, and what the appropriate response to them should be.
This is an excellent read for an afternoon to yourself or for a book club. It may be short but it’s a rich story that provokes thought and discussion.