Men and women in Grand Rapids, Michigan, struggle to survive.
Grand Rapids sounds like a bad place to grow up. In Abbott’s debut novel, the city is full of drugs, crime, and broken families. Nearly every adult character faces hopeless circumstances. A Motown singer named Joy Green had a hit a while back but becomes a drug addict, starring in violent pornographic movies to make money until she dies of an overdose. Once a promising football prospect, Jackson Carter is now an alcoholic raising two foster children, Isaac and Miles. There’s hope for them, though. Isaac has a great jump shot, while Miles is an aspiring hip-hop producer—with talent passed down by his biological mother, Joy. Abbott has a keen sense for how dull or difficult lives lead to bad choices rather than the other way around. “It’s not that he wants to go back to that life, no,” a man named Frank thinks right before trying crack for the first time, “but the party part of it, people disproportionately happy and euphoric off substances. A few laughs and a few bad choices. A break from all the responsibilities. A break from the daily grind.” Not shy about showing the consequences, Abbott’s plot meanders from one scene of squalor and violence to the next. Frank, for example, crushes his wife’s head with a chair when she won’t give him money for more drugs. Perhaps this relentless bleakness is meant to be true to the mean streets, but does no one in Grand Rapids ever crack a joke? A budding writer who falls under the spell of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Isaac marvels at the way he finds “beauty in the ugliness.” There are degrees of ugliness, though, that make beauty too hard to see.