Anthony James weighs 315 pounds, is possibly schizophrenic, and he’s just been kicked out of college. He’s rescued by his mother, sister, and grandmother, but they may not be altogether sane themselves. Living in the basement of their home in Queens, New York, Anthony is armed with nothing but wicked sarcasm and a few well-cut suits. He intends to make horror movies but takes the jobs he can handle, cleaning homes and factories, and keeps crossing paths with a Japanese political prisoner, a mysterious loan shark named Ishkabibble, and packs of feral dogs. When his invincible 13-year old sister enters yet another beauty pageant—this one for virgins—the combustible Jameses pile into their car and head South for the competition.
Will Anthony’s family stick together or explode? With electrifying prose, LaValle ushers us into four troubled but very funny lives.
About the Author
Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, winner of the PEN Open Book Award. He has also been awarded the key to Southeastern Queens. He lives in California, where he is the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College.
Read an Excerpt
They drove a green rented car into central New York State to find me living wild in my apartment. Wearing shattered glasses and my hair a giant cauliflower-shaped afro on my head. I was three hundred and fifteen pounds. I was a mess, but the house was clean. They knocked and when I opened the front door there were three archangels on my stoop. My sister rubbed my ear when I cried. She whispered, -Why don't you go put on clothes?
My family took me home to Queens and kept me in the basement. When I tried to go outside alone, they discouraged it. My sister led me by the hand when walking to the supermarket. Mom cut my meat at the dinner table. They treated me like what some still refer to as a Mongoloid. A few days of this is tenderness, but two weeks seems more like punishment. The spirit of blame stooped in a corner.
Their concern was wonderful, but the condescension was deadly. And surprising. Before opening the front door to them I really thought my life was full of pepper.
Three weeks after coming back to Rosedale I cooked a big, red breakfast for my family just to prove that I could. Not only to them, but to myself. It was September 25th, 1995. I remember certain dates to organize and understand my disaster. Without them my mind is a mass grave.
It was a red breakfast because I added ketchup to the eggs when scrambling them. And to the bacon as it curled in the pan. Call me tasteless, but ketchup is the only seasoning I need.
I was so nervous that I even dressed up that morning. This bright purple suit that was loose on me and hid my tits. Made me look like a two-hundred-fifty-pound man.
Our oven was so hot I had to watch I didn't sweat into the food. Wiped my forehead with my tie. I pulled butter from the fridge to set next to a plate of toast and if this didn't make them happy then I was out of ideas.
But they didn't appear. I waited a long time.
Even though I heard their beds creak then footsteps on the floor, they never came around the corner. It was like they turned to dust. I prodded the bacon, but without enthusiasm. There was no sizzle yet. With my left hand in my pants pocket I hoped to look cool. I counted numbers to keep from fidgeting.
I turned the gas flames lower. I washed dishes left in the sink overnight and put them in high cabinets. Sunlight addressed the windows.
Worst of all fears is abandonment. Eventually I had to know where they'd gone. The white linoleum tiles ticked against the undersides of my dress shoes.
I was silent in the hallway. There weren't any windows here so the place was dark and the ceiling seemed far. My hands tapping the walls was the echo inside a hollow bomb.
They'd hid in the bathroom. Mom leaned against the sink while Grandma rested on the toilet and my sister, Nabisase, sat on the rim of the tub. Three versions of the same woman-past, present and future-huddled in one room. With the door partway shut I was unseen and apart from them.
Mom whispered, -We should go to him.
-Yes. Grandma agreed, but they stayed there.
My family was afraid of me.
I expected more sympathy, actually, because I sure wasn't the first one in my bloodline to go zipper-lidded. You should've seen when my mother tobogganed naked through Flushing Meadow Park in 1983. Four police carried her to the hospital wrapped in their jackets. Parents on the hill thought Mom was a hump-starved fiend out to abduct their children. Her illness often made her frenzied sexually. Whenever she relapsed the woman was an open-womb, but Haldol had stabilized Mom's mind for years.
There was my Uncle Isaac, too, who walked from New York to the Canadian border in 1986, and emptied out his brain pan with a rifle. So when they discovered me in that Ithaca apartment Mom and Grandma recognized the situation. Their boy had become a narwhal.
I pushed in the bathroom door to surprise them, but instead of shuddering they only sighed.
-Good morning, Grandma murmured.
-I made eggs.
Nabisase smiled. -That's very good of you!
She was confused and angry. She was thirteen and thus only partially human when it came to compassion. Call me her older brother, by ten years, but Nabisase practically had to tie me down to cut my hair that first week back. I kept saying that I looked fine. No kid is going to enjoy that. Sarcasm was her mild revenge.
Mom and Grandma were earnestly complimentary; anything I did earned praise. If I'd taken an especially heavy boweling they would have bought me a squeeze toy.
Nabisase asked, -Is the fire oven still on?
-The place where you cook, Nabisase explained slowly.
-It might be, I admitted.
They ran past me. Forget that. Right over me. Even Grandma, a ninety-three year old, vaulted my doughy shoulders and sped into the kitchen. Where Mom was turning the burners' dials straight off, to six o'clock.
-I wouldn't have started a fire, I told them.
-How do you know? Nabisase asked.
Neville Chamberlain believed Hitler would be satisfied to taste only a jigger of Czechoslovakia. My family knew I wasn't retarded, but the idea of one more paranoid schizophrenic in our fold fucked with their common sense so much that they never mentioned medication, hospitalization, examination. For what? They wished that I was fragile instead of berserk, so that's what I became. They handled me with cushy mitts.
Grandma's English was slightly twisted. She was from East Africa. Uganda, specifically. My mother had also been born there, but Nabisase and I were from Queens. Grandma said, -Well we should have nice dresses then.
Grandma said, -You are wearing a suit. We should put on long pants.
While they changed I finished with the food. I got the frying pans going again; the smell of pig meat warmed my heart. The eggs were solid; not dry, just firm. So much grease on the skillet that they floated pretty as kids in a wading pool. I wasn't fat because of any thyroid condition.
We lived in Rosedale, at the southeastern end of Queens. A suburb of New York complete with the growls of cars leaving driveways. The sound of engines was pleasant to me.
Grandma came back first wearing a yellow housedress and black flat shoes. She walked down the hallway, into the liv-ing room, then sat on the sectional couch waiting to be served. Across the street a husband backed his RV into the yard of a home he shared with his wife. My family was middle class and I liked that.
Then, loud as the Devil in his best pink shoes, my sister attacked my mother. A blitzkrieg; bomb blasts and shouting. Lightning behind Mom's bedroom door.
My mother came down the hallway chased by her daughter, who was swinging a hair dryer and yelling Mom's name. Nabisase hammer-slammed Mom across the back of the skull and the dryer's nozzle shattered into plastic chips around the room. Nabisase took two handfuls of Mom's hair and used them as handles for pulling our mother, face first, to the ground.
Grandma tried to stand, but the couch was shaking too much because Mom had pushed Nabisase backward across it. My mother might even have strangled Nabisase if my sister weren't scratching the skin from Mom's hands.
Nabisase pulled the television from our gray entertainment unit. It would have made a louder crash but my mother's foot stopped the fall. Maybe a toe was broken. I bet my sister wished that was true.
My mother had dabbled with art-dress making and sculpture to name two. The only proof of this was a horrendous statuette on top of our entertainment unit. A tiny bust meant to resemble Sidney Poitier except that both ears were on the same side of the poor man's head. With the television crashing the small bust wobbled about to fall so my mother set it safely on the floor.
Then there was a broom against the wall, so Mom took it and gave Nabisase two baton shots in the ribs. This put my sister on the floor.
And I was the one with a problem?
Grandma yelled, -Anthony! Come. Anthony! Please.
When I stood between my sister and mother they went around me. My sister threw couch cushions over my head hoping they'd hit Mom. Not to hurt, but to annoy, which was a fine alternative.
Mom whipped a small picture frame under one of my outstretched arms and it plunked against a wall, chipping the paint. -I'm getting a lock for my bedroom, Mom promised. I'm getting it today.
At which point Grandma raised her voice. The old lady climbed on the couch. -You crazy three bitches! she yelled. You stake my heart!
She fell backward, but caught herself. The yellow housedress hung down between her thighs. With her spindly old arms and legs visible she became a giant wiry spider. Gnashing and screaming and the yellow fabric gathered below her like a dangling silk line. Loom of the dead. She scared us away.
There really were worse situations than mine. Mothers and daughters are war.
Not to seem monomaniacal, but there was still the matter of nine eggs, eight slices of toast, six pats of butter, four glasses of orange juice, two cups of tea, six sausage links and thirteen strips of bacon awaiting an eating. How could they forget that?
My mother and Nabisase went to dress; passed the kitchen like there was no food inside. This is something I couldn't do. I didn't understand how my mother could. She used to be weak like me, but now I was the only one who felt the pantry calling. There are people who love to eat and those who don't. My mother might have changed, but I was still a man who found any complication less daunting after a full plate.