A young man’s job chauffeuring an NBA star turns out to involve carrying more baggage than he expected—racial, romantic and otherwise.
Jess, the narrator of Leslie-Hynan’s debut, has stumbled into an inner sanctum of sports celebrity: Through some unlikely coincidences, he’s become the personal driver for Calyph, a player for the Portland Trail Blazers. The bling-y external trappings of the job are shallow, if not actively problematic: In the first chapter, Jess knocks over an ice sculpture at Calyph’s rented mansion that injures his boss’s knee. But Jess dwells more on the internal dynamics, which offer rich territory for a novelist. Jess is a white man in a black milieu, and Leslie-Hynan has an ear for baller slang and an eye for the subtle power plays that come with a wealthy man and the servant who knows the household’s secrets. Further complicating matters is Calyph’s white wife, Antonia, who begins a romantic push and pull with Jess. There are unmistakable echoes of Othello here, as well as The Great Gatsby, down to a climactic car wreck in the closing pages. But those familiar antecedents make this novel feel more like a thought experiment than the provocative look into a subculture that it’s meant to be. Jess’ banter with Calyph and his entourage has energy and humor, and intermittent moments capture Calyph’s heavy-hangs-the-crown temperament, his recognition that he’s famous and talented but not forever. Those moments of close observation never cohere, though, into a strong story that also wants to pack in plenty of romantic parrying and musings on race. Leslie-Hynan’s unmistakable talents as a stylist are undermined by a protagonist who’s drably passive (“a clumsy man of inaction”) for much of the novel.
To extend the basketball metaphor, Leslie-Hynan is generally strong in the paint but hasn’t yet developed the stamina for four quarters.