How Are You Going To Save Yourself by JM Holmes review – what it means to be black in America

Book of the day[1]Short stories[2]

An exciting, urgent and nuanced debut collection following the lives of four young men coming of age in the US




JM Holmes explores codes of masculinity and the fractious nature of camaraderie.Photograph: Julie Keresztes

The raucous, heartbreaking, bawdy tales in JM Holmes’s debut collection possess an assured lyricism, uncompromising in its interrogation of race, class, drugs and family. The book follows a decade in the lives of four friends: Rydell, Lazarus, Rakim and Giovanni – known as Dub, Rolls, Rye and Gio. They are young black men becoming adults in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, navigating the pressures of home and friendship, and society’s expectations of what it means to be black in America[3].

In the explosive opener “What’s Wrong With You? What’s Wrong With Me?”, a discussion about the number of white girls they have each been with rapidly descends into chaos. It’s a clever exploration of the fractious nature of camaraderie, of codes of masculinity and the way many black men see white women as trophies – barometers of success in a world that ruthlessly oppresses them.

By turns funny, surprising and deeply uncomfortable, the story culminates in a moment so brutally honest, so quietly ferocious, it left me dazed. In “The Legend of Lonnie Lion”, Holmes deftly addresses family dysfunction and the complexity of mixed-race identities. Here, the teenage Gio moves back and forth between his black father and Italian mother, humorously resigned to their warring perspectives on who he should be and what he should become.

There’s a whiff of broken American dreams around his father, a former NFL player who never realised his potential, and his mother, a self-taught property developer, yet Holmes’s eye remains unwaveringly unsentimental. He avoids straying into cliche despite the familiar tropes of part-time fathers and long-suffering mothers. The devastating “Be Good to Me” tackles the intricacies of young lust and blurred lines of consent.

A wily, charismatic Rolls seduces the smitten Tayla. We encounter the headiness of a mutual infatuation, the dance and language of youthful romance, as well as the conditioning of young boys and girls and power dynamics between men and women, manifested so early on. We are reminded of a patriarchal system that privileges young men and presents young women as bodies to be conquered.

As the story hurtles towards its shockingly dark ending, we are left with the feeling that Holmes has performed a trick of sorts – that a heinous act conducted with such ease and duplicity should be the work of more familiar malefactors. This is a story with a dark centre, unsettling the reader while Holmes cranks up the tension. As time passes and the stories unfold, Dub’s early hopes of playing pro football fade, and the group’s troublemaker winds up as a dissatisfied security systems salesman struggling to cling to a sense of himself.

Rye, athletically gifted, succumbs to the call of the streets, restlessly moving from one career aspiration to the next before embracing his calling as a firefighter; Rolls, an aspiring photographer whose bravado belies his sensitivity, eventually becomes an artist and graphic designer. Only Gio breaks out of Pawtucket, as a rap artist, promptly squandering money on drugs and gaining new demons in New York. As with any collection, some stories are stronger than others.

Holmes renders male characters with microscopic precision; the same level of nuance afforded to his female characters would have added even more depth to stories such as “Outside Tacoma”. Even the standout “Be Good to Me” left me longing for more of Tayla’s perspective – the sign of a story that has made its mark. There’s no doubt that Holmes displays a refreshing level of courage in his willingness to tackle difficult subjects.

The bonds between the young men shift as their adult lives pull them in different directions, and they are torn between what the world demands of them and how they want to define themselves. These are images of life that tantalisingly glimmer, treading the line between humour and pathos, offering sharp insights into the black American experience[4]. Holmes has been compared to Junot Diaz and Ta-Nehisi Coates[5], but he is a distinctive writer in his own right.

Spare in style, strikingly urgent, his is a voice to get excited about. o Irenosen Okojie‘s short story collection Speak Gigantular is published by Jacaranda. How Are You Going to Save Yourself is published by Sceptre.

To order a copy for GBP12.74 (RRP GBP14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Free UK p&p over GBP10, online orders only.

Phone orders min p&p of GBP1.99.[6][7]

References

  1. ^ Book of the day (www.theguardian.com)
  2. ^ Short stories (www.theguardian.com)
  3. ^ what it means to be black in America (www.theguardian.com)
  4. ^ sharp insights into the black American experience (www.theguardian.com)
  5. ^ Ta-Nehisi Coates (www.theguardian.com)
  6. ^ Irenosen Okojie (www.theguardian.com)
  7. ^ guardianbookshop.com (www.guardianbookshop.com)

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