BASS 2019: Jamel Brinkley, “No More than a Bubble” from LitMag #2

“Mono No Aware” by Joshua Stringer (detail, modified)

“Mono No Aware” by Joshua Stringer (detail, modified)

For a while, “Brooklyn Zoo“ was my working title, and I wanted to draw upon the energy, aggression, and arrogance that characterized that song in order to counter the passivity, inwardness, and timidity of the narrators I often find myself using in first-person stories. But then, in order to counter all that male intensity and assuredness, the story demanded that Ben and his friend be out of their depth, in terms of their age and maturity, and in terms of their understanding of their environment, of the women they pursue, and of their problematic, exoticizing desires.
It is a cliche in fiction to have a scene in which a dog barks mysteriously in the distance, but what happens when a barking dog actually shows up?

Jamel Brinkley, Contributor Note

I have a lot of questions about this story. It’s sort of a swan story – you know how a swan glides through the water so gracefully, but the power is generated under the surface by unseen feet. The surface story glides along, but there’s a lot more going on, a lot of subtle touches in for the reader to connect. Right now I’m thinking it’s an open story, so those touches are designed to connect in different ways, depending on the reader’s context. But as I said, I have questions, so I could be completely off base here.

Ben and his friend Claudius are sophomores at Columbia, crashing an off-campus party given by older students and graduates.

The main difference between a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown was that on campus you were just practicing….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 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.

The basic flow of the story goes: they pair up with a couple of hot women, older, mysterious, confident, and they end up finding out just how much more practice they need. But this is a simplification to the extreme, and all those subtle touches nudge in one direction or another along the way.

For example, there’s a line in the second paragraph that I think is key: “The party, thrown by a couple of Harvard grads, happened just weeks before the Day of Atonement, in late September of 1995.” First, it sets up, in a story told in retrospect, an incident important enough to be remembered twenty years later. In an interview with Craft, Brinkley goes into some detail about his use of flash-forward. The first sentence tells us “It was back in those days” and then we’re there, with the sound of music and the smell of booze and the first sight of the two women who will lead the boys through the evening.

But that reference to the Day of Atonement seems major. The whole story is set in a sort of multi-ethnic stew: ancestry from the Caribbean, Belize, Italy, mentions of Japanese philosophy and now, Jewish religion. I assumed this mixture was the New York vibe. But this particular line, so specific, set me up to expect a rather Jewish story, or at least a Jewish protagonist. There’s no indication anywhere, at least than I can see, that Ben is Jewish, with the possible exception of his name. His father is Italian (and calls him Benito, which could be a nickname or his given name), and his mother is African American. Neither of those scream Jewish, though it’s of course possible either might be. Later, one of the women accents this note:

“We graduated in May,” I lied.
“Mazel tov,” Iris said.
Sybil shook her head.
Iris’s attention snapped all the way back now. “What? I can totally say that.”
Sybil made a popping sound with her mouth, and the two of them laughed.
Claudius and I laughed too, though neither of us knew what was funny.

I can’t tell if Iris is reacting to something about Ben that gives her the impression he’s Jewish – something he said, or is wearing – or if she herself has some connection to Jewishness, a possibility Ben idly speculates on later. Or it’s just a Hebrew phrase most people happen to know. Sybil’s reaction makes me think it’s something more, as if this has been something they’ve discussed before. But I agree with Ben: I have no idea what’s funny about it.

In any case, it’s such a big tell – to remember an event was the day before Yom Kippur, twenty years later, means it was somehow connected at the time – that it goes way beyond ethnicity or religion, and imparts a flavor of forgiveness. The Day of Atonement is more complex than simple forgiveness: an individual must forgive those who have trespassed against him, then ask for forgiveness for his trespasses against other people, before asking God for forgiveness for sins. So it conditions forgiveness and repentance on each other.

Which brings us to Ben’s mother. As they are wooing the women, Claudius suggests they play a game of confession: tell their most shameful stories. He starts with an episode of sexual acting out when he noticed a neighbor watching him through his window. Hr probably thinks it makes him look cool, but the women aren’t impressed. Ben tells a story about looking through his father’s skin mags, but it’s clear he’s more reflective than shameful, and includes his mother’s reaction and complaint to his father: “Don’t you realize what you’re teaching him?” The women lose interest completely, and wander off: “Then they turned away, and just like that sealed us off from them. I marveled for a moment at this female power.” Turns out, Ben’s mom left his father shortly after the magazine incident. The real female power to seal off. Ben chose to stay with his dad, out of some kind of loyalty, and his relationship with his mother was strained from then on. Lots of forgiveness due in this scene alone.

Ben’s father has had a lot of influence on him, and on his attitude towards women:

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 knew the kinds of women he meant. I also knew he was talking about my mother, 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 stopped around our house all summer and appeared smaller and more frantic by the week. ….He held a chewed fingernail up by his 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. Making a dull life is the only way to be happy. “

So all this family stuff is lurking beneath the surface as Ben and Claudius take their shots at the party with these older women, and fail. They get a second chance as they notice the women leaving, unable to handle their bicycles. The boys offer to escort them safely home. This doesn’t work out too well either, since they come across the snarling dog promised in Brinkley’s Contributor Note above. And again, the boys show they are boys by freezing and the women show they are women by beating down the dog.

I’m not sure how I feel about that; any dog that’s beatable doesn’t deserve it. And that seems to fit into the next section as well, where the women invite the boys in.

At the party, Iris kept referring to bubbles, somehow related to the Japanese philosophy of aesthetics, mono mo aware. I’ve had some very tangential brushes with Japanese aesthetics, and it’s complex stuff, mostly based on naturalism, the acceptance of irregularities we would see as flaws. In this case, it’s a reference to a kind of overall awareness in conjunction with wistful acceptance of the temporary nature of things. Bubbles burst. They sure do. In his interview with Crystal Hana Kim at Apogee, Brinkley tells us the title of the story comes from Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” another reference that ties in nicely with this story. You think you’re just along for the ride until you’re confused and bleeding on the side of the road.

Now that the women have the boys on their turf, things get real. The women, already naked, tell the boys to strip, which is hard enough for them, and then look at each other. For a long time. This takes the story of boys-getting-laid off-track to the point where getting laid is covered in a sentence or two. Ben finally gets to use the condom his father gave him; at least he knows the kind of woman Iris is. And I suspect he knows he’s no match for her. At least not yet.

It’s the relationship between Ben and Claudius that takes center stage:

Claudius was sitting up in the bed, staring at me. At once an acute ugliness shuddered into being, a face revealed within his face, and he must have seen it within mine too. It had been that way with people in my life, with people I have loved: a fine dispersal, of rupture as quiet as two lips parting, a change so sudden one morning, so slight, you wonder if they had ever been beautiful at all.

I’m not sure what caused the bursting of this bubble. Did they both recognize, when subjected to the male gaze, what women go through all the time, and feel some kind of shame at the type of masculinity they’d been brought up to flaunt and prize? Were they ashamed at whatever random homoerotic feelings ran through them in the moment? Or were there more than just random feeling, and shame that the other saw them? Was it just the general idea that the women were running the show and they were helpless? Did each blame the other for getting them to that point?

The rupture between Ben and Claudius is the denouement, however; the climax comes a paragraph before, as Ben again thinks about his father:

What did he mean back on that August morning before I returned to college? ….I don’t know, but I keep imagining what it would be like, to be a father to a boy who loves me 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 with me. I have no idea what to say.

This comes in a future moment, looking back on that night with Iris and Sybil – Iris, a part of the eye, and Sybil, a prophetess – from an adult vantage point twenty years later. It sets in stone the hero worship of his father, now dead. And I wonder: why is Ben not a father? Is that by choice, or circumstance? What would those circumstances be?

So I end this story with far more questions than answers. They’re good questions, malleable to different shapes so covering a lot of ground. I don’t know if Brinkley intended it this way. I went through several reviews of the story before writing this post – it’s the opening story of his 2018 book, A Lucky Man, a finalist for that year’s National Book Award, so reviews abound – and did something I seldom do: I read Jake Weber’s post before even making preliminary notes. I was that convinced I was missing something that floated through the story, some big sentence or pov shift that boiled down to “this is what the story means.” I also thought a male viewpoint might be instructive, that he might see this story about masculinity quite differently than I. I was relieved that Jake struggled on this one, too, in much the same way I did. He came out of it with a somewhat different range of ideas, but we were both in the ballpark. And he tripped over the Day of Atonement reference like I did, which was a comfort. If I had one question to ask the author, that would be it.

Maybe Jake’s Five Themes is the Bubble way to think about it: an awareness of all of it. In another rare move, I pre-read the next story, which has a theme that complements this idea nicely. So onward.

BASS 2018: Jamel Brinkley, “A Family” from Gulf Coast #29.2

Art by Chris Ofili

Art by Chris Ofili

Curtis Smith watched from across the street as the boy argued with Lena Johnson in front of the movie theater. She had probably bought tickets for the wrong movie. Or maybe Andre didn’t want to see any movie with his mother on a Friday night. Her expression went from pleading to irate. The boys said nothing more. With his head taking on weight, hung as though his neck couldn’t hold it, he followed as she went inside.
It was a chilly evening in November, the sky threatened by rain. Curtis blew warm breath into his cupped hands. Obedience, he thought, he could talk to the boy about that. He’s been making a list of topics they could discuss. The question of obedience was right for a boy of fifteen, when the man he would become was beginning to erupt out of him like horns. Though sometimes it was important to disobey.

There’s a thousand ways things could go wrong all through this story. Just the first paragraph had me clenching my teeth: Why is he watching them? Is he a former lover, is he Andre’s father, disappeared and now wanting back in? No, someone else is Andre’s father, so why is he making a list of topics to talk to the kid about? And we’re back to stalker. Uh oh, twelve years in prison, that doesn’t sound good…

It all turns out to be relatively benign, a past tragedy of jealousy, grief, guilt, and vehicular manslaughter. Andre’s father was Curtis’ best friend until they had a major falling out; when Marvin died in a fire, Curtis was wracked with guilt, culminating in the DUI that sent him to prison. Hey, I did say “relatively”. His interest in Lena and Andre isn’t clear – I don’t think it’s clear even to him – but it involves some combination of responsibility to Andre, finding out the details of Marvin’s death, and, maybe most importantly, finding out what Marvin said to Lena about the falling out between them, all with an overlying layer of guilt.

So much could go wrong. But it doesn’t, not because of twists of fate, but because these people work at it. And even more amazing, it keeps out of heartwarming movie-of-the-week territory.

“What makes mothers the way they are?” Andre asked one day. It was the first time he posed a question like this to Curtis, that of a boy seeking the wisdom of a man.

No, the music doesn’t play, the credits don’t roll, there’s no sense that It’s Going to Be Alright. You can see the work being done on every page, by all three characters. Sometimes it’s patience, sometimes it’s taking a risk, sometimes it’s recognizing a mistake.

In his blog post at Workshop Heretic, Jake Weber looks at the story from the sleuth point of view, inspired by the mention of Walter Mosley in the text. I particularly liked his comments on the conflict between Curtis’ masculinity and the infantilization partly forced upon him by his inability, as a black man with a prison record, to get a job.

Although the story felt full of tension – I kept waiting for something to go wrong – it manages to resolve in the key of family. I just had an email conversation with a friend, in which he mentioned some family issues but assured me he loved his family. I told him there’s a reason fiction is so often about families: it’s where everything starts, ends, and happens. Most of us start in one family, and create another, yet they are connected in ways we may or may not recognize, whether by imitation or contrast. And by the way, I have the sense that Curtis’ mom is the overlooked character in this story. I’d love to see an expansion of her story.

The family in the story is black, and while race is only explicitly mentioned a couple of times, it’s always a presence. Curtis recognizes that, if the woman he’d killed while driving drunk had been white, he’d still be serving time. What’s not said, but what this reader understands, is that if Curtis had been white, and had a hotshot lawyer, he might not have done any time at all.

I was very aware of four sentences, sprinkled throughout the piece, dealing with what a linguistics professor of mine, back in days of yore, called action/intent indices. They’re about how we can use language to accept responsibility, or distance ourselves from it:
▪ In the first instance, he’s walking off his stress, whispering Marvin’s name over the East River: “He might have also said the name of the dead woman, the one he had struck with his car….”
▪ In the second, he’s walking again, watching a woman making a phone call (again, the stalker vibe): “…she reminded him, for some reason, of the woman he had struck with his car.”
▪ The third time, he’d followed Lena into the club but hadn’t talked to her yet. “Sipping his third bourbon, he thought about how easy it had been to go from his first to his third, and beyond, on the night the girl was struck by his car.”
▪ The fourth time he’s dreaming: “.. there was the dim, gray shadow of the woman he’d hit with his car all those years ago…. That night she’d seemed to fall upon the car like a burden dropped from the sky…”

See the difference? In the first two, he struck the woman with his car. In the fourth, again he hit her with his car, though there’s some distancing in that she’d dropped out of the sky. But in the third, it’s as if the car hit the woman without him. The only real difference I see in context is that drinking distances him, removes his action and intent; it’s the car that hit her, she dropped out of the sky. Drinking isn’t mentioned anywhere else, he’s not identified as an alcoholic, and a DUI is not necessarily diagnostic. Isn’t this an extension of the so-called social lubricant function of alcohol? Who hasn’t used the excuse, “I had one too many, I didn’t mean it.” Taken to the extreme: instant absolution. Release from agency. I didn’t do it. I can’t think of a better reason to drink.

Oh and by the way: he never gets to the point of “the woman I killed.” That’s still a bridge too far.

I love that this story is part of a conversation: in his interview with Crystal Hana Kim at Apogee, Brinkley tells us: “’A Family’” is a kind of response to ‘Gold Boy, Emerald Girl’ by Yiyun Li, which itself is a response to ‘Three People’ by William Trevor.” I haven’t read either of the predecessors, so I can only imagine that these, too, are stories about other families, perhaps also bound together by shared tragedy. The story is found in the recently released collection A Lucky Man, shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in fiction.

Curtis nodded and listened as Andre continued talking about his future, his life of success, of accumulation and bachelorhood.

This is the most hopeful sentence in the story: the kid hasn’t lost his belief that his future is in his hands. He’s been loved enough to stay an optimist. Curtis and Lena are another story, but they manage as well. It’s a balancing act, and it’s never a sure thing, but they’ve formed a family. Brinkley’s Contributor Note explains he arrived at the title: “I wanted to emphasize all the characters together as one unit, even on the level of grammar.” He discarded anything that made it sound like this was a “degraded” family. To me, the story does a fine job of this. And families try to make it work, and allow some leeway for the times when it doesn’t.