As with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the black narrator of this rakishly funny and distressingly up-to-the-minute debut novel doesn’t disclose his name, because, he says, “I’m a phantom, [and] a figment.”
In a near-future America where racial divisions have become, if anything, deeper and bleaker than they are now, our nameless narrator has, through guile, pluck, spit, and polish, worked his way to associate attorney with Seasons, Ustis & Malveaux, a powerful law firm with tentacles reaching to every stratum of a city known here only as the City. Though wound tight from having to look over his shoulder at every potential office competitor, the narrator is determined to do whatever he can to ingratiate himself with his bosses and secure a full partnership, whether by enduring cornball plantation tours, struggling to overcome courtroom jitters, or agreeing to be chairman and sole African-American member of the firm's “diversity committee.” It’s all for the sake of his biracial son, Nigel, who has a black birthmark on his face that's grown so large over time that the narrator will try anything to make it fade, from oversized baseball caps for blocking the sun to skin-lightening creams whose application bewilders Nigel and enrages his white mother, Penny. The narrator is desperate for his son to avoid the fate of many other black men who have been consigned either to substandard neighborhoods or, as is the case with the narrator’s estranged father, prison. (“The world is a centrifuge that patiently waits to separate my Nigel from his basic human dignity,” the narrator laments.) But a bigger paycheck from his firm would enable the narrator to pay for what promises to be the ultimate solution: an experimental medical procedure that will not only remove Nigel’s birthmark, but make him look totally Caucasian. Whether they're caused by delusion, naiveté, dread, rage, or some combination thereof, the narrator’s excesses sometimes make him as hard for the reader to endure as he is for those who either love or barely tolerate him. But his intensely rhythmic and colorful voice lifts you along with him on his frenetic odyssey.
Ruffin’s surrealist take on racism owes much to Invisible Man and George S. Schuyler’s similarly themed 1931 satire, Black No More. Yet the ominous resurgence of white supremacy during the Trump era enhances this novel’s resonance and urgency.