Reading While White – Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead

Reading While White – Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead

The title character and narrator of Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead is Marcus Hayes, a young black New Yorker who is disinclined to put up with any more shit, which he demonstrates first thing in Chapter 1 when he kicks the ass of some bellicose white nitwit. Hayes, clearly, has some anger issues of his own, some of them rooted in toxic U.S. race relations – but he’s dealing with them! He keeps a running tally of days elapsed without smacking anyone upside the head.

When he’s not hitting people, he goes to law school, meets the charming Amalia, learns the valuable lesson that there are even bigger bad-asses than he is out there, passes the bar, gets a job at a San Francisco firm, and marries Amalia.

All along, Hayes is trying to figure out what it means to be a man, a husband, a professional, which he finds difficult given the lack of the obvious role model – his father died when Hayes was a young boy. A missing father is bad enough, but for a black American, it’s also a stereotype, one that Hayes wants no part of. He devises (and occasionally revises) a narrative about his father he hopes will lead people to regard him as he wishes to be seen.

Hayes wants nothing to do with the stereotypes. He’s not a victim of society. He’s worked hard for what he’s achieved. He’s a lawyer. He’s a responsible gun owner – let his liberal friends figure out how that works!

But being black in America is context that can be neither escaped nor ignored, and Hayes keeps getting reminded of it.

An earlier wave of feminists had to remind the country that the political is personal. What was (and is) true of misogyny is also true of racism. Hayes finds himself swimming in context. The partners at his firm unquestionably treat him differently. Police always have. A relentless string of incidents such as the beating of Rodney King and the murder trial of O.J. Simpson amplify Hayes’ personal sense of discomfort into fugues of existential dread.

Then Hayes gets devastated by a personal tragedy. He responds poorly, and he knows he’s behaving poorly, yet he cannot stop himself. Worse, perhaps he doesn’t want to stop. In the past, he let his bad temper occasionally get the best of him, but seriously, why shouldn’t he be angry? Between all the personal stuff, and the appalling and inescapable political stuff on top of that, why shouldn’t he be allowed to behave poorly?

Because context. Being a knucklehead and being black is dangerous. Hayes’ situation just keeps getting uglier and uglier.

In a recent interview, Smyer said the novel started as a set of short stories, and it shows. Knucklehead is episodic in a manner that feels cobbled together. A revelation late in the novel about Hayes’ family feels like it might have been retrofitted to provide a narrative arc to the longer work, though that does nothing to diminish the power of that arc. That the book has flaws should not dissuade anyone from picking it up. Hayes has a one-of-kind narrative voice – smart and acerbic, at turns muscular and sensitive.

Smyer, allowing Hayes to tell his own story, accomplishes something that Ralph Ellison was unable to achieve with his unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man and that Richard Wright did not quite pull off with Bigger Thomas in Native Son. A problem with showing-not-telling in any written work is that shown characters are inevitably taken as emblematic. Funny, astute, multidimensional Hayes, by opining on his own experience, resists being read as a stereotype. Smyer handles all this meta so organically the reader might not notice until reflecting on the book.

It is easy to read Knucklehead as little more than a novel about race relations in the United States. That’s what it is, mostly. But the book comes with a short prologue, in which Smyer attempts to pull back, to set up a wide-angle lens he invites the reader to look through to see not just Hayes, not just America, but the world. The narrator of the prologue is unknown; it might be Hayes, it might be Smyer. Whoever it is, it is someone whose skin tone is immaterial.

The narrator of the prologue relates a story from the narrator’s childhood. His younger self has found a moth stuck in a glue trap. The child lights a match and prays for God to stop him from killing a creature that is going to die anyway, and soon.

Like Hayes’ family history, the story feels tacked on -as a prologue it is tacked on, but that doesn’t mean the lens doesn’t or shouldn’t work. Are we all doomed to do what we do, and experience what we experience, despite our most fervent prayers?

Knucklehead is about a cruel subject, and it is narrated by an overtly angry narrator, and that might make it hard reading for some. Yet America is sometimes cruel and it’s always difficult to face our shared shortcomings and failures. Knucklehead would not be out of place on a shelf of books by Ellison, Wright, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Updike, and other writers who have tried to capture what it means to live in America.

Review: Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

Review: Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

Stefan Kiesbye’s Berlingeles

By Brian Santo

The titular joke in Berlingeles is that Americans finally get their wall; it’s just not where they thought it would be. German-born novelist Stefan Kiesbye trains his jaundiced gaze on the current state of affairs in the United States (his adopted country) and takes just a short leap, timewise and conjecturally, to a future in which the Confederacy has revived itself and is in an armed standoff with the Union and its allies, Canada and Mexico.

Los Angeles is the Union’s last loyal enclave in California. The weak Union can barely protect it, but the Confederacy is not strong enough to overrun it. So the Confederacy isolates Los Angeles in precisely the same way the Soviet Union once blocked off East Berlin, hence the portmanteau that residents adopt for their city. As with East Berlin during the Cold War, once you find yourself in Berlingeles, it is difficult if not impossible to get out.

Berlingeles is a move toward cyberpunk, a genre that is new for Kiesbye, who has worked mostly in the horror vein. Characters in Berlingeles who can afford the equipment navigate through an augmented reality called “the Fleece.” They can live up to 140 years if they have the money to occasionally “scrub” the biological systems they have that still function, and replace the ones that don’t with spare parts that are apparently cybernetic. Those upgrades are exceedingly valuable, and in a city that has already begun unraveling toward chaos, they come with the risk of having criminal gangs bloodily claim them for resale.

Berlingeles is reminiscent of The Sprawl, the vast metropolis imagined by cyberpunk godfather William Gibson that stretches continuously from Boston to Baltimore. Both The Sprawl and Berlingeles are urban, decadent, decaying and, in some areas, exceedingly dangerous.

But though Berlingeles has the trappings of cyberpunk, it isn’t really. In straight-up cyberpunk, the technology matters. Cyberpunk authors typically have some interest in the societal implications of technology, how it might change the way people behave and how they relate to each other. Or at the very least, some tech bauble or other is a plot device. Kiesbye doesn’t seem to care about technology either way. In Berlingeles there is no scientifical macguffin, and the technology that people use doesn’t seem to make them any more or less apt to treat each other badly.

And the characters treat each other very, very badly. It’s an effect that being walled-in can have.

They desire nothing more than escape or release – perhaps in love, perhaps in Mexico. But Berlingeles is cordoned off, wretched, brutal and getting worse. The same can be said of its inhabitants. Building emotional walls is as necessary and reflexive as breathing. Every interaction involves some form of menace or degradation or both. The result of engaging with any other person is almost always more misery, isolation and alienation for everyone involved.

Everyone is manipulative or manipulated, and whether they’re one or the other changes from one interaction to the next, dependent entirely on relative power, whether expressed as wealth, sexual attractiveness, or physical menace. Sex is transactional and perfunctory when it’s not repellent – for readers, if not for the characters. At one point, Kiesbye describes relationships as what couples wish to inflict on each other.

Between the physical wall and all the abuse going around, it appears unlikely anyone in Berlingeles will ever find escape, let alone freedom, no matter how hard they look. Those who persist in looking, however, include Gaz, an entry-level hoodlum, Sophie, a prostitute with a heart of stone, and K., a former novelist.

Sixteen-year-old Gaz does precisely what the gang lord Rat instructs him to do – deliver packages, dismember someone for their parts, kill for reasons that will remain obscure if Gaz knows what’s good for him. Gaz is obsessed with the damaged complex of tunnels below Berlingeles. He intuits that there might be a path out of the city down there, for someone enterprising enough to look and desperate enough to try to elude the tunnel inhabitants who appear to have drifted farther from humanity than those on the surface.

Gaz and Sophie are lovers, for lack of a printable term that conveys the disinterest and grubbiness involved. Being a hooker is merely what 14-year-old girls in Berlingeles do. Sophie aspires to make it to Mexico, encouraged by her Mexican grandmother Ida, who might exist only as a Fleece memory, but who can be caustic and bullying all the same. Sophie is trapped in a yet another way, however. She’s too naïve to figure out how to play the angles – perhaps too uninspired to realize that there are angles to be played.

K. is one of Sophie’s clients. He is in his 90s, has one new arm and one new leg, and resists the thought of leaving Berlingeles for fear of missing his beloved B., a would-be lover who, pre-Wall, promised to come find him in Los Angeles. He gave up writing novels years before, when a younger rival published a book strikingly similar to the one K. was only just finishing. Worse, the rival’s version was much better, as K. himself acknowledges. K. appears to have a secret, and it might be that long ago he killed his wife, or so a Berlingeles homicide detective seems to believe.

K., being a writer, might be a stand in for Kiesbye himself. Or perhaps Kiesbye wants the reader to think of Kafka’s K. or Josef K. Perhaps the single-letter moniker is just a fake-out. In a city in which everything seems meaningless, can a name signify anything?

Kiesbye is impressively imaginative in the construction of his Berlingeles, but some elements of his future show how difficult prognostication can be. In the mystery genre, Carl Hiaasen has spent decades trying to exaggerate the weirdness of Floridians, but his fellow Sunshine Staters, as prodigiously inventively whacked out as they are, keep upping the ante on real-life craziness (e.g., “Florida woman dies after nude domestic dispute on jet ski”).  

In Berlingeles, Kiesbye occasionally gets stuck in the futurist’s version of the Hiassen Bind – how to imagine something weirder than what exists now. For example, Berlingelenos are fans of an animated Fleece series about a cartoon bear whose hapless top half is frequently at odds with his severed, flatulent bottom half. The series follows the halves’ misadventures with their friends Tea Kettle, Swiss Cheese, Celery Stick and Eggshell. It’s barely (pun intended) odder than Aqua Teen Hunger Force on Cartoon Networks’ Adult Swim.

But again, these are details, and though the details in Berlingeles add up to verisimilitude for the future that Kiesbye has constructed, in the end they matter as much as the technology. If anything matters in Berlingeles, it is people and their collective fate.

In that way, Kiesbye’s Berlingeles is reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon. In the novels of both, characters discover they have somehow been conscripted to play roles in what are apparently consequential plots or vast conspiracies that they are only partially aware of and not sure they have identified correctly. Characters discover they are connected in unexpected and sometimes inexplicable ways, and they struggle to discover if they’ve been manipulated into forging these relationships or if their meetings are merely chance and coincidence.

Pynchon’s novels traffic in paranoia, sexuality that is occasionally burlesque, and absurdity that bends toward the comedic. Some Pynchon characters feel as though they are contributing to the making of history, but there’s still the possibility they’re merely being swept along in some historical current, involved yet unable to truly affect anything. In Pynchon’s universe, there are no easy answers, and we might be asking the wrong questions anyways. It’s never entirely clear there is a mystery, and if there is, it might be unsolvable.

Berlingeles traffics in nihilism, however. Sex is grotesque, and any humor is accidental. There is no question there are powerful people engaged in plots and machinations. The conspiracies are real, but they’re going on at such a high level, who can afford to care when they’re busy trying to survive all the brutality and depravity? And history? As consequential as technology or animated celery sticks.

Kiesbye describes himself as a pessimist, but perhaps he’s less pessimistic than he thinks. A reader is apt to walk away from a Pynchon novel amused but feeling an existential helplessness that the world is too complex and too weird to fully ken, let alone do anything about it.

Kiesbye’s characters might be stuck behind walls, but Kiesbye’s readers are not. Recoiling from all the degradation and misery they find on the page, they might come away alarmed at how close America is to bungling its way toward a society too reminiscent of Berlingeles, replete with a civil war and walls both metaphorical and – if some get their way – literal. You want walls? Germans know from walls. Be careful what you wish for, and if you miss the message, Kiesbye pounds it home by quoting Ronald Reagan’s exhortation to Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the end, a reader might walk away from Berlingeles considering that wall-lessness might be possible, but we’re going to have to want it badly enough to actively reject walls. It might be hard. It might even be unlikely. But trying to inspire readers to think about our collective fate? Since when is writing a cautionary novel a pessimistic act?

Brian Santo is a journalist and occasional contributor The Literary Chick web site.

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