A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

Short stories are a challenge to write and to read.  The ‘rules’ regarding novels do not always apply – the dictionary definition of a short story is ‘an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot’.  The challenge for the reader perhaps is the lack of a plot and for the writer is to include the typical elements of a novel but in between 1000 and 4000 words.

What short stories can do – when written well – is to make within the story some sense of our sometimes confusing and turbulent lives.

Names of the greatest short story writers generally include Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Guy de Maupassant and W Somerset Maugham.  There are others of course but one wonders why a new short story writer would pit him/herself against such writers.  One writer who did – and with considerable success – is Jamel Brinkley.

A Lucky Man is a collection of nine stories generally set in Brooklyn New York which explore moments in the lives of Black American men and boys.  While there are references in the stories which identify the men and boys as black, that identification is of lesser importance than their masculinity and their fractured relationships with their fathers, brothers and male friends.

Each of the protagonists is somewhat on the edge of his community and sometimes of his family – either through an emotional distance or, in one or two cases, geographic distance.  Each in his own way is also exploring past and present relationships and attempting to anchor his place in the world.

In the first story, No More Than a Bubble, the narrator and his friend Claudius attend a party each hoping to have sex with someone.  The narrator – who is not named – describes how the night unfolds but also explores and dissects his relationship with his father and his estrangement from his mother.  The story ends with the sentence ‘It has been that way with people in my life; a fine dispersal, a rupture as quiet as two lips parting’ [27].

In another, Wolf and Rhonda, Wolf attends his school reunion and there meets again Rhonda with whom he had a brief sexual relationship when both were at school.  At the time, twenty years previously, Wolf initially saw it as one of many sexual conquests; but it became something else when he realised there was a connection he had not experienced before.  But Wolf had enjoyed being with her.  It had been much more than sexual pleasure, much more than the risk of being caught [208].  However, Rhonda has almost put the encounter out of her mind.

Wolf also discovers that Rhonda had told ‘everyone’ what had happened.  In a reversal of roles, Wolf is dismayed that their sexual encounter is generally known.  He asks why the hell did you tell them? [213]

In some of the stories, there is a search for a connection of some kind – of any kind – with other people.  A young boy taken with his class to a house in a more expensive neighbourhood to swim struggles with the concept of charity and tries to understand the adult world where more is left unsaid just below the surface than is said.  In another, a man just out of prison and whose best friend has died searches for a new connection to him through his friend’s grieving wife and son.  His growing love for the son enables him and the boy’s mother ‘to make a kind of family’ [139] although not one based on love between themselves.

In A Lucky Man, the eponymous story, the concept of masculinity takes a sinister turn.  A man travelling on the subway each day to work takes photographs of young women with his mobile phone.  He assures himself that, because he photographs only their faces, all is above board and safe.  But he is estranged from his wife and daughter due to the photographs – and disconnected from himself as he deceives himself about the purpose of the photographs.  The story concludes with ‘He told her what he could.  He told her a lie’ [158]

The strongest impression taken from the collection by the astute reader is that none of the stories is the ‘whole story’ and none tells the ‘whole truth’.  We are often shaping our personal stories to present how we want to be to be seen – not always a truthful representation.  These nine stories explore the gap between the presented story and the protagonists’ real lives.  Some of the protagonists appear to be playing a role – a role set out for them by their community.  They act as black men and boys are supposed to be acting – they are playing the ‘masculine role’ as determined by others.

Jamel Brinkley has captured beautifully in these nine short stories what it means to be a man or boy of colour in contemporary New York – but more than that, he explores the inner lives of males who are struggling with past relationships and attempting to forge new ones.

Jamel Brinkley’s writing has appeared in a number of publications including The Best American Short Stories 2018 and he is the winner of the Ernest J Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.

A Lucky Man

[2019]

by Jamel Brinkley

Profile Books

ISBN 978 1788 16321 7

240pp; $29.99

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