Review: Surrealist exploration of celebrity, responsibility in age of Black Lives Matter


HELL OF A BOOK. By Jason Mott. Dutton. 336 pages. $27.

“These people are looking for somebody to say something that they can’t say. You’re a writer. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The fourth novel from poet and New York Times bestselling fiction writer Jason Mott, “Hell of a Book,” is a timely and robust exploration of myriad forms of love and of the precariousness of being Black in America. Mott masterfully threads two seemingly disparate narratives — one fantastical, the other all too familiar — into a labyrinthine surrealist tale that is by turns farcical and heartrending, tragic and redemptive.

“Hell of a Book” introduces readers to an unnamed celebrity debut author embarking on a cross-country promotional tour for the book-within-the-book, also titled “Hell of a Book.” The writer is repeatedly visited by The Kid, who looks eerily like a recent African American victim of a police shooting, and who may or may not be a figment of a fertile imagination.

The tour brings opportunity to introduce a memorable cast of supporting characters, including the author’s agent, media trainer, escorts, event hosts, hotel and airport staff, talk show interviewers, and fans — among them, actor Nicholas Cage in a profound midflight cameo appearance.

In one of the more surreal moments of the tour’s escapades, the author is literally naked on the page as he must outrun an enraged husband during an interrupted tryst with a fan. In another, he is shocked when informed that he is himself African American, a validated claim he accepts, despite the fact that the book-within-the-book is reportedly devoid of themes of Blackness.

The touring author freely admits to difficulties staying grounded in reality, which is in the novel, as in life, a challengingly problematic realm to occupy.

Juxtaposed against the book tour is the tragic story of a 10-year-old African American boy in rural North Carolina, mocked for his obsidian skin and nicknamed Soot. As well-intentioned protective measures, Soot’s parents instruct him in the art of invisibility and give him “the talk” in preparation for the dangers he will face in inevitable police encounters.

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Invisibility becomes more than metaphoric for Soot, and the shooting death of his father gives him much he wishes to disappear from.

Mott excels at interweaving the narratives and tones into a cohesive, meditative novel, rich with introspection and peppered with pithy, snappy exchanges of dialogue. But he is also capable of slowing the pace and delving deeply into a moment, as in a complex confrontational conversation between the author and a confessed killer, desperate not for forgiveness but for understanding. To be seen.

Unnamed, unseen, and untethered characters permeate the novel as Mott interrogates notions of identity and culpability, questioning whether it is truly possibly to know ourselves or one another, and in the absence of that, whether empathy and social justice will ever be within reach.

He also questions whether writers of color are expected — and indeed obligated — to address themes of race in their art, as well as what responsibilities the writing life brings to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Early in the novel, the author assures us, “above all else, this is a love story.” Certainly, it is that, fathoming the depths of acts of familial, platonic, romantic, and self love as characters strive to be valued, to be seen, to matter to one another, with varying degrees of success and with some heartbreaking failures.

But “Hell of a Book” is unquestionably a ghost story as well, equally haunted and haunting in the ways its intentionally unanswered questions — including the query that concludes the novel — will linger in the imaginations of readers about this vexing moment in our still-unfolding American democratic experiment.

Mott’s transcendent novel ends in embrace and dialogue, and there is optimism to be found in the conversations it will engender and the actions it will foster, as essential literature such as this always does — and always must.

Reviewer Jonathan Haupt is executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center and co-editor of “Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy.”

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