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.
By Brian Santo