FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION
In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history.
Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and classwhere luck may be the greatest fiction of all.
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About the Author
Jamel Brinkley’s stories have appeared in A Public Space, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been a Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellow. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Read an Excerpt
No More Than a Bubble
It was back in those days. Claudius Van Clyde and I stood on the edge of the dancing crowd, each of us already three bottles into one brand of miracle brew, blasted by the music throbbing from the speakers. But we weren't listening to the songs. I'd been talking into the open shell of his ear since we'd gotten to the house party, shouting a bunch of mopey stuff about my father. At one point, sometime around the witching hour, he stopped his perfunctory nodding and jerked his chin toward the staircase. "Check out these biddies," he said. Past the shifting heads of dancers and would-be seducers I saw the two girls he meant. They kept reaching for each other's waists and drawing their hands quickly away, as if testing the heat of a fire. After a minute of this game the girls laughed and walked off. We weaved through the crowd and followed them, away from the deejay's setup in front of the night- slicked bay windows, and into the kitchen, where we took stock of the situation. One of the girls was lanky and thin-armed, but notably rounded at the hips. She wore a white tank top, which gave her face and painted fingernails a sheen in the dimmed light. A neat, ladylike afro bloomed from her head, and she was a darker shade of brown than her friend with the buzz cut, a thick snack of a girl whose shape made you work your jaws.
The party, thrown by a couple of Harvard grads, happened just weeks before the Day of Atonement, in late September of 1995. Claudius had overheard some seniors talking about it earlier that Saturday after the football game, as they all smoked next to the pale blue lion statue up at Baker Field. Later he dragged me from my dorm room. We slipped out of the university's gates and took the subway down to Brooklyn, determined to crash. The party had been described as an affair for singles, so when you arrived you had to write your name on a sticker and affix it to your body. The taller girl with the afro, Naomie, wore her sticker on her upper arm like a service stripe. The friend had placed hers cleverly, as both a convenience and a joke meant to shame. "Hello," her ass told us, "my name is Sybil."
"Dizzy chicks," Claudius said to me, and we gave each other these goofy, knowing grins. The main difference between a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown was that on campus you were just practicing. You could half-ass it or go extra hard, either play the wall or go balls-out booty hound, and there would be no actual stakes, no real edge to the consequences. Nothing sharp to press your chest against, no precipice to leap from, nothing to brave. You might get dissed, or you might get some play. You would almost certainly get cheaply looped. But at the end of the night, no matter what, you would drift off to sleep in the narrows of a dorm bed, surrounded by cinder block walls, swaddled in twin extra-long sheets purchased by someone's mom.
We approached the girls and pointed to our stickers to introduce ourselves. The one with the afro pronounced her name Now-me and did so with her nose. True to this utterance, she seemed the more insistent and lunatic of the two. She vibrated. We asked where they were from. Most of Naomie's family had scattered across northeast Africa. Sybil was Dominican. Claudius and I liked to know these kinds of things.
"You enjoying the party?" I asked. Naomie didn't respond. Her attention flew all over the place. The party house was old — you felt its floorboards giving, perceived its aches being drowned out by the music and conversations that swelled with everyone's full-bellied bloats of laughter. In hushed moments, you heard the creaking of wood, followed by the tinkle of glass, the crunch of plastic, or the throaty rise of the hum. Naomie seemed attuned to all of it, to every detail of the house and its subtle geographies. She stared now through the glass doors that led to the backyard, where lit torches revealed little groups of smokers breathing vividly into the air.
I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned to me.
"Oh, it's you again." Then she gave her friend a bemused look.
"Yep, they're still here," Sybil said.
"Enjoying the party?" I repeated.
Naomie waited a long time to reply: "We're bubbling." From the living room the deejay began to play a new song. "What is this?" she said. "I've heard it before."
"You don't know about this?" said a guy standing near us. He had a patchy beard and double-fisted red cups of foamy beer. Maybe he was a Harvard man. "Man, y'all are late," he said. "This is 'Brooklyn Zoo.' Ol' Dirty Bastard."
Claudius and the girls nodded in recognition but to me it all sounded like code.
"Why's he called that?" I asked.
The guy laughed at my ignorance. "Because," he said, "there's no father to his style."
The girls turned to each other and began a kind of stomping dance. "Damn damn damn," Naomie said, "this song is so bubble!"
They understood the good life according to the image and logic of this word — simultaneously noun, verb, and adjective — its glistening surface wet with potential meaning. Their faces became masks of anger, nostrils and mouths flexed open as they danced. Naomie kept her arms pinned to her sides while Sybil jabbed the air with her elbows. Claudius nodded at Sybil and told me, "I call dibs."
"Already called it," he said.
We both preferred girls of a certain plumpness, with curves — in part, I think, because that's what black guys are supposed to like. Liking them felt like a confirmation of possessing black blood, a way to stamp ourselves with authenticity. But Claudius had made his claim. I was left to deal with Naomie, the prophet of the bubble. Fine, no big deal. He could have his pick. This was all his idea anyway. We wouldn't even be here if it weren't for him. He knew I needed a good distraction.
A few weeks earlier, late one August morning in Philadelphia, shortly before the start of sophomore year, I sat with my father, Leo, at the kitchen table and got drunk with him for the first time. He told me to beware of crazy women, angry women, passionate women. He told me they would ruin me. "But they are also the best women," he said, "the best lovers, with a jungle between their legs and such wildness in bed that every man should experience." I felt I knew the kinds of women he meant, and I knew for sure he was talking about my mother, Doreen, but I didn't give a damn. She had left us, left him, a few years earlier, and recently she'd announced she was getting remarried. I saw how this news affected my father. He had stalked around our house all summer and appeared smaller and more frantic by the week. He searched as though the answer to the question of how his life had gone so wrong were hidden in one of the rooms. All but undone by this effort, my father regarded me that morning through his heavy eyelids and long Mediterranean lashes. He'd inherited bad teeth from his own father, and before he turned sixty he'd had a bunch of them yanked right out of his mouth. He wore a partial denture but didn't have it in as we drank. The bottom of his face was collapsed like a rotten piece of fruit. "The best," he repeated. "And so ..." His Italian accent deepened the more he drank. His tongue peeked out of his broken grin. "And so every man should experience this, Ben," he said. "Once." He held a chewed fingernail up by his high nose and then reached into his pocket for something. It was a condom, wrapped in silver foil. "Use this with the most delicious woman you can find, una pazza. Let her screw your brains out, once and never again. Then marry a nice, boring, fat girl with hands and thighs like old milk. Make a dull life. It's the only way to be happy." He gave me the condom. It was an ill-timed ritual — I'd already gone out into the world. Still, he believed in it, just as he believed there was a guaranteed way to be happy. Since I was his disciple, and quite drunk myself that morning, I believed in it too.
Claudius and I slid in behind the girls and danced with them right there in the kitchen. Naomie moved well but with aggression. She spun around, hooked her fingers into my belt loops, and slammed her pelvis into mine. She ground herself against me for a while and then backed away to show her perfect teeth and claw the air between us. She was a kitten on its hind legs, fiercely swiping at a ball on a string.
I leaned in and asked if she'd gone to Harvard too. I tried to sound older, like I'd already graduated and was fully a man.
"We're Hawks," Naomie said in her nasal voice. Then she spread her arms like wings and slowly flapped them. Claudius had a theory that I liked about girls with nasal voices. He said girls who spoke this way, cutting their voices off from their lungs and guts, did so as a kind of defense, a noisy insistence meant to distract men from the flesh.
"Hawks?" I asked.
"Hunter College, ninety-four. Hey, why don't you get me and my girl some whiskey bubbles?"
"That would be whiskey and ...?"
"Where do I get that?"
She gave a disappointed shake of her head. "It's just whiskey," she whined. "Be a good boy."
Passing Claudius and Sybil as they danced, I winked to let him know we were in. The sensation of Naomie's moving hips ghosted against me. There in the face of the kitchen cabinet floated her pretty smile and dark eyes, flecked with a color close to gold.
After making four healthy pours of Jack, I carried the cups back over. Sybil sniffed the whiskey and let her eyes cross with pleasure. Naomie lifted her cup and with a dignified tone and expression said she was thankful for the universe and all of its moments. "And for whiskey and music and madness and justice and love," she added.
"And for the sky," Sybil said. "Have you seen the fucking sky tonight?"
Their words were completely meaningless. It was a toast to nonsense.
"And for your tits," Naomie said. She reached out and squeezed Sybil's right breast. "Doesn't she have great tits?"
Claudius stared brazenly at them. "She does," he said. "She really does."
He had come to New York from West Oakland with certain notions regarding life out here, that the city's summer heat and dust, and its soot-encrusted winter ice, were those of the cultural comet, which he ached to witness if not ride. Because of these notions, he manipulated gestures and disguises, pushed the very core of himself outward so that you could see in his face and in the flare of his broad nostrils the hard radiance of the soul-stuff that some people chatter on about. Though the features of his face didn't quite agree, he could convince you he was handsome. For this trickery his implements included a collection of Eastern-style conical hats and retro four-finger rings. His choice for tonight: a fez, tilted forward on his head so that we, both of us, felt emboldened by the obscene probing swing of the tassel.
Claudius and I knew what we were toasting: the next phase of life. At parties like this the crowd was older, college seniors who already had New York apartments, graduates who were starting to make their way, and folks who were already far enough into their youth to start questioning it. The booze was better and the weed was sticky good. The girls were incredible, of course, especially here. You could taste a prevalent Caribbean flavor in the air, as if the parade through Brooklyn's thoroughfares on Labor Day had never stopped and this had been its destination all along. If not Caribbean like Sybil, the girls were African like Naomie or something else distinct and of the globe. Each girl had her own atmosphere. We were convinced they wore better, tinier underwear than the girls we knew, convinced they were mad geniuses of their bodies.
"So where'd you two escape from?" Naomie asked, though her gaze drifted out to the backyard again.
"Uptown," Claudius said. "Columbia."
"Roar, Lion, Roar," Sybil said.
"We graduated in May," I lied.
"Mazel tov," Naomie said.
Sybil shook her head and laughed.
Naomie's attention snapped all the way back now. "What? I can totally say that."
Sybil made a popping sound with her mouth.
"Fuck you," Naomie said. She sounded angry but smiled in a pretty way. "Hello? The original Semites? They were African. My people basically."
Sybil made her mouth pop again.
"Beta Israel, bitch," Naomie said, and the two of them laughed.
Claudius and I laughed too, though neither of us really knew what was funny. Before we could pick up the thread of the conversation, the girls left without saying a word.
We slid up the stairs after them and wound past the partygoers perched there gossiping or flirting or losing themselves in mazelike privacies of thought. On the second floor, a group of people stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway of one room, as though to block something illicit from view. Claudius and I pushed past them and found ourselves in an immense bathroom, where voices echoed off the tiles. Two girls stood fully clothed in a tacky, powder blue Jacuzzi, their heads framed by a backlit square of stained glass over the tub, but they weren't our girls. We returned to the hallway and caught Naomie and Sybil coming out of a bedroom, trailed by the skunky-sweet odor of marijuana. We pursued them downstairs and out into the backyard.
Claudius jumped into their line of vision and said, "So let's play a game."
For a moment the girls acted as though they had never seen us before, then Sybil's eyes widened. "Wow," she said.
Claudius announced that we should all trade confessions. "Shameful stories," he said. "Secrets. The worse they are, the better." This idea seemed to have been inspired by the refrain of "Brooklyn Zoo" — Shame on you! Shame on you! The girls seemed amused but unconvinced by his suggestion; Claudius went on anyway. "Who wants to go first?" he said, and waited. But this waiting was just a sham. Of course he would be the one to begin.
What we aimed to achieve in these moments required patience and a strategic silence. Then, when we did speak, there was a distinct lowering of our voices — even in loud places, so that we'd have to lean in close. We made eye contact that was both firm and soft, not quite a stare, and we broke it occasionally to let our gazes trickle down the full lengths of their bodies. This had to be less wolfish than a leer, more a sly undressing. The total effect would be a kind of hypnosis, inducing a gradual surrender of the self. As we'd developed it, this method had worked plenty of times with the girls on campus, but we knew that this was nothing to be proud of. College is nothing if not four years of people throwing themselves recklessly at one other.
In his affected murmur, Claudius told us a story I had heard before. The story may or may not have been true, but it shocked people, or aroused them, or made them feel vulnerable and sad. Claudius wasn't what you would call a patient guy. He needed to know as soon as possible where people stood, especially girls. Here is the story: When he was in high school, he discovered that the old lady who lived alone next door was watching him from her window. Every morning and evening, with the door locked against his alcoholic mother, he would exercise in his room wearing only his briefs. Furiously blinking, Claudius told them: "Calf-raises, push-ups, chin-ups, and crunches till I dropped. And there she was, this old biddy, looking dead at me with her old biddy glasses on like it was the most natural thing in the world, like I was putting on a show. So that's just what I did. At first I stood at the window and stared right back at her, rubbing my chest and abs. Then, after a week or so of this, I started rubbing baby oil on myself. Took it up a notch by walking around butt-ass naked, and when that didn't faze her, I tried to get my girlfriend to help me put on a sex show. Well, she wasn't having it. Too innocent, I guess, so get this: I masturbated instead, stroking it right in front of the window. The old biddy watched this too, but the next night she wasn't there. Poof, gone. Wasn't there the next night either. That was the last night she watched me. I guess she got to see what she'd been waiting for all along."
In unison the girls let out a shriek, which spilled into rapid chatter that was like another language. Even in the dim party lights, their darting eyes stood out, fine russet and amber stones. Their bodies shook with laughter as they slapped their thighs and rocked their heads back. The flurry of motion seemed to release scent from them: ripe sweat and vanilla oil with traces of almond. Naomie's perfect afro eclipsed broad sections of the room in its orbit. Other girls had been either repulsed or aroused by the story, unambiguously so. None had ever reacted like this. And something else was off. Naomie's wild mouth and eyes appeared to move independently of the rest of her face. She looked like a defective plastic doll.
"What the fuck?" Sybil said finally. In her accent, the word fuck became for us a powerful sexual clue. "This one thinks he's a freak," she said and then sent Claudius's tassel spinning with a flick of her finger.
Excerpted from "A Lucky Man"
Copyright © 2018 Jamel Brinkley.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
No More Than a Bubble 3
J'ouvert, 1996 29
I Happy Am 55
Everything the Mouth Eats 75
A Family 113
A Lucky Man 141
Infinite Happiness 159
Wolf and Rhonda 187
Clifton's Place 215