A successful young author is touring America to promote his latest book. He’s doing great, also with the women; the story begins with him running stark naked down the corridor of a five star hotel with his lover’s murderous husband in hot pursuit. Ten minutes later, he’s in bed with the receptionist instead. This guy’s a riot.

Cut to bad dream: the same writer, still unnamed, is visited by the ghost of The Kid, a boy so black he goes by the name Soot. Soot has eight bullet holes in his frail body, from where he was shot by a racist police in a little racist town much like the one where the author grew up. Here’s how he feels about that place:

Down in this part of the world, we got it all: fifty-foot Confederate flags planted along the interstate, statues put up by the Daughters of the Confederacy, plantations where you can have wedding pictures taken of the way things used to be; we got lynchings, riots, bombings, shrimp and grits, and even muscadine grapes.
Yeah, the South is America’s longest-running crime scene. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. But the thing is, if you’re born into a meat grinder, you grow up around the gears, so eventually you don’t even see them anymore. You just see the beauty of the sausage. Maybe that’s why, in spite of everything I know about it, I’ve always loved the South.

Soot isn’t the only dead person to visit the author, in fact his imagination is so hyper active that his therapist feels confident that there must be some trauma, buried deep into the sands of the past. The writer disagrees. Here he is again:

Reality is full of bad news. Pick up your phone and check out whatever news sites you frequent and I can guarantee that you’re going to see a laundry list of atrocities. The planet’s melting. People are getting trafficked, and murdered, and molested. It’s just all too much. I figured that particular thing out a long time ago. My therapist says that my condition is related to some sort of trauma of my own, that I’ve experienced myself, but I don’t buy that. I haven’t had any traumas that I know of. Sure, I’ve had my share of bad luck, but that’s different from trauma.

What we’re talking about here is Hell of a book, by Jason Mott. It received the National Book Award last year, which is a pretty big deal. And indeed, it is one hell of a book. You should read it.

Don’t be misled though. It starts out all glitzy with lots of sex and glamorous people from the New York literary scene, but just when you think you know where the story is going, it turns darker, and then darker still.

The famous writer, who’s got his face on the cover of all the coolest magazines, is rapidly starting to lose it. He has a meltdown on a talk show when he becomes convinced that the audience and the host are all figments of his imagination. He ditches the woman who’s cast in the role of his would-be saviour. He’s drinking far to much.

In the end the only thing that remains real to him is Soot, the Kid who’s shot full of holes.

But the more Soot is taking center stage, the clearer it is that he’s representing something bigger than himself. His pain is universal, but also strangely reminiscent of the authors own miserable youth. When the writer lets go of his aversion of Soot and finally take a clear eyed look at the boy, the two characters start to blend. Here’s from their last conversation:

You and me, Kid, we’re the same person in that sense. And maybe in a bigger sense than that. You know how I told you that this was going to bee a love story?


Maybe that’s still true, just not in the way that I expected. Maybe the love story here is more reflective, you know? Like maybe Narcissus had spent his whole life hating himself before that one day when he saw his own beauty, his own worth.

“Ha ha! Geez, that’s lame.”

Laugh all you want, but I think learning to love yourself in a country where you’re told that you’re a plague on the economy, that you’re nothing but a prisoner in the making, that your life can be taken away from you at any moment and there’s nothing you can do about it – learning to love yourself in the middle of all that? Hell, that’s a goddamn miracle.