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Chris, the protagonist of this snappy and engaging first novel, has a refreshingly original voice. A disillusioned, irresponsible African-American from the wrong side of Philadelphia, he'd rather be anywhere than the City of Brotherly Love. Upon college graduation, he enters an advertising contest promising the winner a job at a top New York agency but sadly comes up short. His hopes for escape momentarily dashed, he soon receives an offer from a small London advertiser looking for a junior creative associate, and Chris' journey of discovery begins.
With a plane ticket to London and little else, Chris heads overseas, eager to leave his homeland behind. London was "everything I'd ever hungered for…Success was defined by how far I'd run from the place I'd been born to." But what he finds across the Great Pond isn't all it's cracked up to be. Chris becomes a co-dependent in a murky relationship with his self-destructive boss, and meets up with a beautiful and feisty Nigerian lady who takes to his bed as well as she does to bossing Chris around.
In less than a year, his job in the U.K. quite literally goes up in smoke, and Chris is forced to come to terms with his own personal demons. Arriving in Philly newly humbled, he begins to take stock of what's really around him, and what's deep inside of himself-possibility.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An African-American ad designer follows his luck from the hood to the U.K.--and back--in this uneven but quite worthwhile first novel. At 31, having finally earned his B.A., narrator Chris Jones yearns to escape West Philadelphia, his rundown hometown. When Chris wins third place in a marketing contest, his entry catches the eye of David Crombie, a brilliant designer with Jamaican roots. David invites Chris to move to Britain and work for his tiny ad agency in Brixton (a largely black part of South London). Once there, Chris designs some ads and finds a passionate Nigerian girlfriend. His main job, however, is helping David's wife pick up the pieces after David's benders. Then there's a tragic twist of fate, and Chris must return to West Philly. Bitter and dejected, he takes a temp job at the electric company, phoning poor people to help them pay their bills. He must reconcile himself with his co-workers and clients, with his homegirl Alex and with the milieu in which he grew up. Johnson's portrait of West Philly is as nuanced, elegant and witty as his portrait of Brixton is lifeless and flat, and the urban American supporting characters seem alive and genuine in a way none of the English figures begins to be. Chris's inner journey toward peace with his hood and with himself remains bittersweet without being sentimental; it's in Chris's own psyche, and in his West Philly, that Johnson shows his gifts. If the author's next novel resembles the last half of this one, he will have become a writer to celebrate. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Johnson's very humorous debut novel is a classic tale of a young man's rise, fall, and redemption. At age 31, Chris Jones has just completed an undergraduate degree in marketing and lands his dream career in advertising, which propels him from the urban blight of Philadelphia to the bright promise of London. Chris enjoys the benefits of a Santa Claus-like boss, an exotic girlfriend, and a great apartment until tragedy ends his European adventure. His return to his worst memories of Philadelphia initiates a struggle with self-hatred and doubt, but he is redeemed by accepting and finally embracing his identity with the city that gave him life. Johnson's poetic reflections recall the work of James Baldwin, while the cynical realism experienced by the main character during his downward spiral reflects that of Ralph Ellison. Wonderfully written, although the poetic language occasionally interferes with the narrative; this is recommended for all public libraries.--Lee McQueen, SUNY at Buffalo Lib. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Johnson's debut novel reworks a venerable theme: the young American who travels abroad to forge a new identity but ends by discovering that he is far more American than he'd realized.
From the Publisher
“Johnson's talent is obvious from the get-go . . . [Drop is] comical, serious, and eloquent--all at the same time.” The Washington Post Book World
“Drop by Mat Johnson signals the arrival of a talented new fiction writer who is adroit at both satire and creating sensitive, memorable characters.” Essence
“Read it for an example of writing at its best.” Rocky Mountain News
“Sophisticated. Brilliant. Honest. Lush with prose that resonates with riffs, sounds of jazz that jump off the page . . . What an opening act for this young writer!” Sonja Sanchez, author of Shake Loose My Skin
“Drop is a story of restlessness, adventure and a profound search for identity, in short all that the American novel hopes to be at its best. The distances Mat Johnson travels are more than geographical, they are leaps toward literature's most sacred forefathers. Displaying biting humor and a singular talent for beauty, Mat Johnson is a bright new star.” Victor D. LaValle, author of Slapboxing with Jesus
Read an Excerpt
A Hungry Man
Me: poor and broke, alone, thirty-one-years-old and only just finishing as an undergrad at a third-rate Pennsylvania state college, no work experience except comforting my mom before she passed. A man with no connections, and even if I did have contacts they'd be back in Philly, and I'd be stuck going up and down Lincoln Drive to 176 for the remainder of my life, East River Drive or West, cursed to pass the same buildings (windows, façades, steps), the same people (skin, breath, voices), the same damn trees (spruce, popular, pine) and streets to match (Spruce, Poplar, fucking Pine) over and again and more, stuck in a city that was a tidal pool, never swimming down the Schuylkill past that net by the Art Museum or floating serenely along the Delaware into oceans beyond. And this meant pain and anger and fear because me was also: ambition and the desperation dreams create.
So there, within despair, six months from graduation and my impending fall back into the Delaware Valley, I was walking under the dusty fluorescent lights of the marketing department of the university that had promised, but was not providing, my career in advertising. I listened to the slow methodical thump of my soles on the gray linoleum, and that sound as it died against the cinder block walls. I was going to see my advisor, to plead with the small balding man who chewed the backs of ten-cent pens with such ferocity that while you tried to pump him for information on internships, job opportunities, or recommendations, your voice was given a background of spittle,slurp, and crunch. So I was walking down a public school hall knowing: this is not a place that provides futures. I was walking towards nothing really at all. It was there where I happened to glance at the cheerily colored Job Board, giving myself a moment's reprieve from frustration by looking at the sea of glossy ads for military enrollment, ghetto schoolteaching, up to $400 a week envelope stuffing, federally auctioned used cars (starting at just $1) and bulk-rate spring break vacations. I was just about to pull away a brochure for the chance to win a new motorcycle when, at the bottom of the scarred corkboard, I saw it. Below the multitude of glossy false hopes, a strikingly plain white sheet of paper was flapping around in the wind provided by the correctional facility fan blowing down the hall, dancing for me at the bottom of an otherwise still wall. A white sprite of light into my ever darkening abyss.
I got on my knees to see it, pulling it straight from its folded, envelope-fitting form to see what secret it was trying to conceal. There was a picture on it, black and white, blurred. It could have been me: the back of an upturned head, of a shirt collar showing as a white band above a gray suit and beyond, in the gaze of its unseen face, towers of skyscraper glass. It looked as if he could reach out to them, palm their tops like pre-dunked balls. Over his shoulder, hanging like an urban palm tree, was a street sign. The way it was turned, one of the streets was indiscernible, but the other shined back at me in big letters that said it all: Madison Ave. Can you make it here? read the caption. Create a new and invigorating advertising campaign for an existing product, and you could find yourself working at one of the nation's top advertising firms.
The contest, where pauper and prince were on equal footing. The only way that the pauper got to be king. And I knew, as I tipped the notice from the wall, staple included, that I could be Arthur in this story. So clearly sent to me, this challenge, my trumpeted escape. I wasn't even discouraged when I saw that the postmark due date was the following day, because I understood that miracles worked that way.
I spent nearly four hours in the CostSaver behind campus, breathing too loud, staring at shelves on top of shelves on top of shelves as if I had lost something there (on the packaging, on the labels, between the words), dodging prime Middle American consumers as they awkwardly pushed their gluttonous carts. A security guard, female, caucasian, approximately 5'4", followed me for a while, stared down from the top of the aisle as I tried to ignore her blue form in my vision's periphery, making me nervous the way cops can. But then she got bored, approached me slowly, and asked me what I was up to, then left me alone with all those products and the realization that I didn't know what I should be doing and that staring at poorly packaged detergents and cosmetic aids, bland potato chips and inedible jerky treats, wasn't helping. I had gained nothing and lost time.
I retreated to the fruit and vegetable section, away from the barrage of packaging and merchandise. Trying to slow my breath and concentrate on something besides failure, I watched artificial rainforest showers cover the produce with transparent beads every twelve minutes, knowing that I didn't have time to flounder. It was already night, going on late night, and then it would be morning, and then the day would be gone and so would my life, my chance at an exit from the empire of mediocrity. Or maybe my destiny was never to break free at all. But I knew that was wrong, that I could do this, because it was the only thing I could do. For all the assets I lacked (work experience, money, a family, decent clothes, athletic skills, charm, self-confidence, a background that was middle class), I knew that I had been given one great power: the ability to see things the way others couldn't, or more specifically, as others did but were unable to articulate, identify. I had the power to infect others with my own desire. Nostalgia for outdated fantasies, bottled guest-passes to oblivion or the idea of Pure Fun, I could sell it to you and make you like it, make you think you'd been begging for it all the time. All I had to do to make you want something was fall in love with it first. Then, surrounded by the purity of the products of nature, love came to me. I saw the essence of perfection. And I realized, in a blur of Philly logic, what better to pimp then perfection itself?
It sat before me. A divine gift complete with heavenly packaging: shining Technicolor skin porous like an old drunk's nose and perfectly formed around a product that you could rip apart with your hands to reveal the bite-size pouches of flavor within, the entire structure forming into one graceful orb. And I knew I could take this creation from the most accomplished product designer in the universe, God, and make even perfection greater than it was before. I, the vegetative alchemist, was to bear life (mine) from the common orange. A simple orange. A fucking orange.
That was the pitch, the vision: an ad campaign for the orange, presenting it in a light which the public would cry for, broadening its target consumer base beyond health freaks and concerned moms. This was the challenge. Despite all the orange's attributes, the product was still neglected at the back of supermarkets, a forgotten hopeful of the impulse buy. It was not glorious fruit that the late-night drunks and insomniacs entering convenience stores reached for, but the imperfect creations of man. The fried, salted vulgarities, bubbled from oil and thick with its fat. The glucose-encrusted chocolate kibble treats, leaving fecal-like smudges across their mouths and brown caloric mud in the unbrushed crevices of their rotting teeth. I understood (giddy and grabbing at the pile of oranges in a search of a perfectly round orb rich in the color that named it) what was missing as well: the calculated feeling of transgression modern products imply. The illicit excitement of biting something naughty, a prepackaged revolutionary freedom.
Four P.M. the next day. Sweating, disheveled and sour, I held the finished product in my hands: a portfolio filled with the print ads, packaging design, and market analysis that would start a dietary revolution. I couldn't stop looking at the photos of my creation. Didn't my orange look so utterly marketable in its clear plastic wrapper? Didn't you know that if you reached for it on a store shelf it would crinkle in your hand, calling to you in treble whispers, Take me with you, devour me, there is no greater pleasure than the life inside?
In one photo I caught an image that showed that this creation was living, on fire, urgent. Two female hands (thank God for undergrads who sit in libraries eager for any odd excuse to walk away from books too big to be carried with them), fingers long and brown ripping through the fleshes: peel, encasing, pulp. Oh the mist, nearly invisible in real time and noticed more in the snapping away of her head as eyes squint, sweet acid like sunborne pepper spray. The frozen image revealed an orange ball exploding away from itself, shaped like an orchid beginning its bloom, with skinny hands as orgasmic midwives bearing witness to the wet scream of citric love.
When I took the final work, my images, my impromptu creations, to the post office (4:50 P.M., please let me in the door), I was thinking, This is it; I won. This was the product. They would make me the Prince of Florida; even my offspring would be destined to reign.
Slapping it with the spit side of the stamps, I was already planning the first prize, five thousand bucks and a guaranteed position at one of three Madison Avenue firms. All I wondered was, Which one? Because it had to happen. Broad Street and Market could no longer stand as my east-west, north-south. I was going somewhere, my game was starting. I included my picture in the package as well, as the application had asked for. It was me smiling into the digital camera at five A.M., Friday morning. Yes, slightly disheveled, naps ablaze, but staring into the camera with that kill-stink of victory. At the postal box I pulled the door open and let my message be swallowed into its benevolent blue gut. And then it was patience time. Glory be to me for I am the creator.