By AM Larks
It is almost 11:45 a.m. on a rare sunny day in Berkeley and instead of being outside, I am sitting in the basement lecture hall of Berkeley City College that smells vaguely of feet. My cell phone doesn’t get reception, so I cannot distract myself from my impatience and anxiety. I am anxious because I want to like this panel of authors, because I deeply respect the moderator, and because I need something to write about, to tie into, my review of Jamel Brinkley’s collection A Lucky Man.
The moderator, after introducing each panelist, has them read a selection from their respective works. I don’t expect that this will be the thing I write about because it is just a reading. I am expecting that something in the discussion of the actual work will be what I will weave into my review. Something about craft or purpose or theme. Something substantial. Something respectable. Something that a real critic would talk about. And then Jamel Brinkley opens his collection to the title story and reads.
His voice is smooth—like melted butter—as it slides over every word he reads. His deep, raspy voice helps to accentuate every sound and syllable in his sentences. I am undone.
A man of a kind should get what he deserves, and if a man like him couldn’t get a woman like her, then something was terribly wrong in the world…Do her friends tell her she’s lucky? … Has her mother told her to give thanks for her man? She might be saying it now as they picked out plums and nectarines at the fruit market, or sat out on the porch shelling peas. Surely this was foolish thinking, just as foolish as thinking that [their daughter] Tameka would spend these years breaking the hearts of any eager Georgetown boy who wasn’t like her father.
What is also apparent from this reading is that Brinkley is a master of form, and his revision of “A Lucky Man” is the latest example. He has tailored choice excerpts from the printed version into a story of its own by splicing lines together and cutting entire paragraphs. When he finishes reading and closes his book, I feel like I have experienced an entire narrative. A smaller, shorter, more contained version of “A Lucky Man,” but no less poignant.
Brinkley’s short story collection will show you that his words are not the beginning but the endpoint of a vast and complex world that he creates anew with each tale, each with its own rhythm and soundtrack. In “J’ouvert 1996,” the words give way to a more staccato rhythm and a lively, fast pace.
As we pushed down the avenue, more figures with pitchforks, devils oiled slickly black, rushed at us and began to fling paint or grease or powder or dye. They targeted us, the ones who lingered on the edge and observed, stirring and scattering us, splashing the liquids from crushed detergent bottles and roughly smearing the oil from their own skin. I held on to Cuffy’s hat as if the devils were a wind, and as they whipped us blue and white and orange and black, and as breathing felt like drowning in color, they seemed to be saying, There are no observers here.
This story is about a narrator coping with coming of age in a financially challenged household while his father is in jail, his mother is dating again, and he is often left in charge of his developmentally challenged brother. But like all of Brinkley’s, this story contains multitudes and is about more than that. “J’ouvert 1996” is about what we do to cope with our circumstances. It is about moving on and relationships, tradition and history, it is about the masks we wear, it is about appearance and status, it is about observing and participating.
This is Brinkley’s brilliance, creating stories that contain an entire life in a moment in time, one that Brinkley uses to introduce the reader to all of the characters and their histories. The good, the bad, the embarrassing, the proud. Brinkley’s characters are as full and as complex as any flesh-and-blood body one might encounter. That person standing in the corner at a house party has a story, has a name, and Brinkley introduces us to them, to the people we might not be paying attention to.
This is why you read Jamel Brinkley. By the way he writes, by whom he writes about, Brinkley forces you to pay attention. He asks his readers to slow down, savor the moment, the word, and let life resonate within them. When you return to the world outside his words, you will look at it anew. And don’t we all need a little bit more of that?
AM Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review and contributes reviews and interviews to, and is a reader for, TCR. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She lives in Northern California.