Clayton (In the Shape of a Man, 2013, etc.) updates the story of Rip Van Winkle in this social novel.
In 2015, a backhoe at a construction site in Philadelphia unearths a coffin containing the long-slumbering Van Ripplewink, who went into the ground at age 17. He emerges half a century later without seeming to have aged—although he has grown quite a long beard. As he stumbles through the streets of his old neighborhood, called the Avenues, he’s confused as to why the cars look different and so many stores have changed their names: “He passed a little nail salon he had never seen before, an African and Caribbean food store, the Sahara Restaurant where Wong’s Chinese restaurant had been.” Perhaps most confusing to him is the fact that all the residents now appear to be African-American or Vietnamese. After he receives a salutatory beating from a group of local youths, he’s picked up by Charles Davis, an engineer for the city’s gas company, who attempts to help the teenager get oriented. With additional assistance from his own niece, Mignon, and a member of the local homeless community, Honest John, Van attempts to make sense of the new world in which he finds himself. The only problem is that it doesn’t make that much sense to anyone else: in post-Ferguson America, racial tensions are high, and the poverty in inner-city neighborhoods like the Avenues makes it easy for anyone to get caught on the wrong side of the law. Clayton uses the character of Van, with his outsider naiveté, to look into the complex issues surrounding race and justice in America. His prose is workmanlike but observant, with an eye for the decaying conditions of the neighborhood, from the kitchens of overcrowded apartments to the detritus-strewn homeless camps. Although the novel’s inciting incident (and its nod to Washington Irving’s famous oversleeper) suggests a work of satire, it’s actually quite naturalistic and takes its subjects of racism and blight quite seriously. Van ends up being the least interesting character in the cast, and by the time his story resolves in the final pages, readers may have nearly forgotten that there’s anything unusual about him at all.
A serious novel with an amusing premise.