That Jamel Brinkley received one of Kirkus’ most effusive reviews for a debut short story collection has little to do with luck.
“It’s difficult to single out any story as most outstanding,” Kirkus writes of A Lucky Man, an immersive nine-story set that begets a bold mosaic of black masculinity.
Brinkley’s settings are Brooklyn, the Bronx, and beyond. His foci are fathers and sons, brothers, and friends whose relationships shift along a spectrum of intimacy and estrangement.
“Characters feel richer, more convincing, and more personlike,” says Brinkley, who spoke with Kirkus by phone from a writers’ residency in Washington state, “when you see them speculating about themselves and their lives. So they’re not just going through the motions, doing things, they’re not just having dialogue with other characters, but they take themselves as objects of reflection.”
Brinkley is a native New Yorker, Columbia University graduate, and former high school teacher who began writing stories in the “little slivers of time between teaching class and grading essays,” he says. Their strength led to an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.
In the book’s opener, “No More Than a Bubble,” two Columbia undergrads take the train to a Brooklyn house party in late September 1995. There, they pursue two unruly women whose essence eludes them—the kind of women narrator Benito’s late father warned would ruin his son (“But also they are the best women,” he’d said).
“Maybe he knew he was talking to a young fool,” Brinkley writes. “Or maybe observing what I did with my life would be his way of figuring everything out. I don’t know. I don’t know, but I keep imagining what it would be like, to be a father to a boy who loves and believes in me and, despite all our differences, wants nothing more than to be a man in my image. I see that spectral boy, my son, vividly, and feel frightened when he is near. I want to speak to him, but I have no idea what to say.”
One of the most fascinating parts of A Lucky Man’seditorial process was arranging the stories, says Brinkley, who encourages readers to honor the order. “No More Than a Bubble” is first because it seeds many of the collection’s major concerns.
“You’ve got these two clowns up in this party,” he says, “trying to assert their masculinity in whatever way but also the relationships between parents and children, or a father and son, in this case. And not just masculinity, but black masculinity, in particular—what does it mean to be a black man?—and a narrator being hyperconscious about that.”
Eric of “Everything the Mouth Eats,” a story inspired by James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” grapples with his masculinity, identity, and a family legacy of abuse en route to a capoeira convention with his estranged younger brother, Carlos.
“He showed the man all of his vulnerabilities,” Brinkley writes, as Eric witnesses Carlos playing capoeira for the first time, “just with the placement of a foot, a beautifully timed sweep to put him gently on the floor, letting him know that it isn’t such a horrible thing to fall down.”
Novelistic, interrogative, and intense, A Lucky Man heralds “a major talent,” Kirkus’ reviewer writes.
“The best short stories to me,” Brinkley says, “are the ones that don’t have that airless quality that sometimes stories can have, where everything is almost too perfect, every single thing is there to contribute to a certain meaning at the end. I like a short story that feels a little shaggier, a story that takes in more of the stuff of life.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.