One man’s desperate scramble for cash, shaped into an outsized metaphorical novel on race, class and other American tensions.
The 35-year-old narrator of Thomas’s debut novel is a man of many talents: He’s taught college English, worked construction and played guitar in clubs, all while conquering alcoholism and starting a family in Brooklyn. And as his story begins, all he’s got to show for it is bupkus: Both he and his wife are out of work, and he has four days to scare up the five figures necessary to land a new apartment and cover the tuition for his sons’ private school. That struggle gives this tale its narrative arc, but Thomas spends much of his time meditating on the past of his hero, who identifies as black (though he also claims Irish and Native American blood) and ponders how much race has both supported and oppressed him. It’s an ambitious idea—with some obvious parallels to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—and the book is filled with some virtuoso passages that expose the subtle degrees of racism in the narrator’s world. The relatives of his wife, who is white, are condescending without being aware of it; a day-labor site turns into a proving ground between him and his Latino coworkers; and the climactic scenes on a country-club golf course detail a few unspoken moral compromises that blacks and whites make to get along with one another. It’s to Thomas’s credit that he takes care to not compress his scenes into simplistic parables about race, but the book’s breadth is more sprawling than ambitious. The reader is presented with so many characters—in-laws, parents, friends, drinking buddies, teachers, folks from the neighborhood—that it all ultimately feels more like a fuzzy satellite photo of Brooklyn than a clear portrait of a single person.
Thomas is a talented observer of how people interact and what dire financial straits feels like, but he’s packed more than a couple books’ worth of observations into one.