Dispatches from criminality form the backbone of this swaggering collection of short stories.
Jackson’s debut directly confronts a crucial problem in America: Many urban black males face the disturbingly accepted option of leading a life of crime. Many of Jackson’s characters—and even Jackson himself, as revealed in his more personal essays—operate outside of the law. Depending on the circumstances, it can seem like there’s no better option. The wisdom his mentorlike Uncs offer is not necessarily the fruit of sound moral judgment, but the lessons learned in street survival. The men here take on various schemes and plots in order to get by; in “Head Down, Palm Up,” one cohort even suggests creating a new name. The most striking aspect of the collection is Jackson’s faithfulness to the language of his experience. Narrators speak in a lyrical but realistic style, their words flowing through the currents of popular slang and idiom, while preserving identifiable substance. Jackson also honestly portrays his characters’ mental makeup, as it’s formed by an array of welcome and unwelcome circumstances and decisions. The unrelenting machismo that runs through the stories can become exhausting, though, especially when it burdens even the most disarming, vulnerable moments, like Jackson’s seemingly sincere penitence at the end of “Serial Killers: There Are No Alibis.” It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish where genuine constitution begins and where egotistical posing stops; yet there’s a case made here that, in this type of life, vanity is a necessary part of survival. In this compelling though uneven exploration of that difficult existence, a lyrical power communicates the reality of urban survival in a way that feels both honest and new.
An intense, authentic vision of thug life.