A debut collection of interrelated essays finds a young writer trying to navigate his way through identity and challenges of race, privilege, sexuality, and culture.
Reflective and creative, Perry has been on a pilgrimage of self-discovery that has led him from prep school and Princeton out East to the freer-spirited bohemia of San Francisco, describing himself in 2003 as “25, black, and frequently straight.” As the collection nears its end, he is “31, almost 32, and my future seemed empty.” After moving to Iowa City for a graduate program in writing, he struggled with his identity and what he wanted amid “the engulfing whiteness of Iowa, a shroud that would surely overwhelm me.” His educational pedigree conferred on him a sense of privilege, of “passage to live among various stratifications of the white world,” which seemed to some to render his racial authenticity suspect. “You’re not a real nigger,” insisted one of his white classmates, though Perry recognizes that race is the categorical qualifier through which others perceive him and through which he perceives himself. He also recognizes that words can hurt and that he has used them to hurt. Chronologically arranged to mark the author’s geographical, psychological, and cultural progression, the essays show that he writes engagingly, feels strongly, thinks obsessively about who he is and what he wants, and doesn’t accomplish anything of lasting significance. He writes about a lot that goes nowhere: sex, relationships, bands, writing, and his graduate degree. Yet throughout his journey of self-discovery, he has been gathering material, experiences that he can mine in writing. The final section features three brief letters addressed to “Emma,” a woman not previously mentioned in the collection. The first suggests that she “might be some sort of light I could follow on my way out of the cave.” At this point, it seems Perry has begun to find his way.
A promising first book.