An engaging though loosely woven debut about an African-American boy who experiences the death of his mother—and the words of Martin Luther King—in the same year.
Walter Burke trudges toward a village in Vietnam and watches a pair of friends die in a firefight. Composing a letter to their families turns his thoughts to his turbulent youth in Birmingham, Alabama. Flashing back, Grooms, an award-winning short-story writer, poet, and essayist, does a lovely job of sketching such timeless aspects of Walter’s and his friend Lamar’s boyhood as their search for specimens to examine under Lamar’s microscope, even as he nails the details of institutionalized racism in the 1960s. As children, Walter and his sister Josie share as their most pressing concern the declining health of their mother Clara, who refuses to seek medical assistance. It seems Clara has adopted a fatalist’s stance toward her cancer—driven, Walter suspects, by her memory of her own father’s senseless death years ago on trumped-up charges of raping a white woman. Her frustrated husband Carl finds solace in area bars. Meanwhile, civil rights marches, boycotts, and protests gather force. Grooms vividly evokes these stirring events, as well as Walter’s cruel experiences at the receiving end of police brutality; the boy’s cathartic transformation during a particularly brutal assault is especially persuasive. Then Aunt Bennie comes from Philadelphia to help her sister Clara, Josie is dragged into jail after her dog is viciously killed by a police canine, Clara dies, Carl is never reconciled to her death, and Walter ships out for Vietnam—which returns us to Bombingham’s opening scene.
Powerfully crafted individual moments and honestly drawn emotions, but first-timer Grooms can’t quite synthesize them into a unified whole.