KNUCKLEHEAD by Adam Smyer

KNUCKLEHEAD

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this comic debut novel, lawyer Marcus Hayes careens through the racially divisive 1990s while trying to manage his compulsive anger, chaotic love life, and economic misfortunes.

Marcus, an upper-middle-class black man doing his best to navigate the vagaries of racial identity, is a talented and competitive law student at New York University with a chip on his shoulder. Too black for his white peers and too white for other African-Americans, he relies on swaggering machismo for emotional security, which in turn leads him to commit ridiculous acts of violence. When the novel opens, for example, he hits an annoying fellow bus rider in the neck with a collapsible baton he carries at all times. That aggression carries into his studies: motivated by the feeling that most of his fellow students think less of him, he gathers a few like-minded peers into a study group with plans to humiliate the rest of the class through his success. His plans for revenge are upended by the last person to join his study group. The beautiful Amalia Stewart demands that he reform his brutish ways. The two eventually get married and move to the Bay Area, where they lead a perfect life—until racial strife and Amalia's terminal illness disrupt Marcus' calm. Agitated by his wife's death and incidents like the Rodney King verdict, Marcus reverts to an even more acute machismo to discharge his restless aggression. He meets the alluring Sarah and actively seeks out opportunities to fight. His habit causes him to tumble down the economic ladder, only compounding his frustrations. Historic events like Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and the O.J. Simpson trial add color to what is otherwise an aimless narrative. Smyer gives Marcus a sardonic and hilarious voice reminiscent of a Paul Beatty protagonist and endows him with a troubled psychology that plumbs the nuances of black male identity. Unfortunately, it's not enough to obscure the fact that very little of interest happens in this novel.

A funny but static novel about black masculinity.

Pub Date: Feb. 13th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-61775-587-3
Page count: 340pp
Publisher: Akashic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2017




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