“In the corner of the small living room of the small country house at the end of the dirt road beneath the Carolina sky, the dark-skinned five-year-old boy sat with his knees pulled to his chest and his small, dark arms wrapped around his legs and it took all he had to contain the laughter inside the thrumming cage of his chest.”
This novel won the National Book Award in 2021 and at times is a soaring book and at other time is confounding, especially in its prose and scope. The novel begins with a small selection of the title book, Hell of a Book, a new triumphant novel for our main narrator. That story seems to involve a very dark-skinned boy who is named Soot throughout the novel. From there, we meet our novelist running down the hall of a hotel in a city he says he can’t remember where naked and being chased by an angry husband. Realizing he has left his card key in his pants in the woman’s (now he realizes, who is married) and has to go to the front desk to get another.
The novel then splits its time between scenes from the bestselling book and the publicity tour he’s on. The tour always includes calls with his agent and publisher asking about his second book, for which he’s already been advanced, various dates and run-ins especially women named Kelly, a lot of navel-gazing, and trying to avoid the news that a young Black teen boy has been killed by a police officer somewhere in the country. The novel he’s written, and the selections we’re provided, follows the story of Soot as he grows up and learns about the world leading toward the seemingly inevitable death of his mother.
Our narrator is in some kind of crisis throughout the novel and feeling pulled in many different directions at once both externally by those whose success is wrapped up with his and his role (and how he conceives it) as a Black man in the US, educated, and literary, and internally by his own demons and haunted memories, and especially through his desire to deny and avoid them. My issue with the book comes with some of the prose, which feels empty at times and how it reaches for certain levels of depth and cynicism, but never quite reaches them or deals with them. The writing is often plagued by a kind of contemporaneity that feels wanting. There’s some discussion of narrator’s obsession with noir films, and I feel like there’s some playing around with the seemingly emptiness of that language, but while the movies and bad novels do have that superficiality, there’s so many writers who decidedly don’t, so I can’t tell if that was or wasn’t there, or if I simply wasn’t as convinced by it as the narrator is.