A Lucky Man. Jamel Brinkley.

Brinkley, Jamel. A Lucky Man. Graywolf, Minneapolis, 2018. F;4/20

This is a collection of thoroughly lovely stories by a new fiction writer who has published in a variety of journals and earned short-listings and awards for this his first book. He’s a Stegner fellow in fiction at Stanford University. There is a roundness to the stories: depth of ambiguity up to the armpits, and the kind of humanity that gets us past our usual preoccupations with gender, race, and conflict by themselves even though these things and others are firmly gripped and explored. Really something.

An ex-convict watches a young boy publicly working out an argument with his mother, whose husband had been the ex-con’s best friend but who died in a fire. Later in a nightclub after several drinks he meets and dances with the mum, Lena:

It was as though a bright, delicate object they couldn’t see, some filament, were held
between them, along the length of her sapphire dress stretched taut by his thigh, the spark of it hot where he carried her on his hip, moving her in the rhythm of his stationary stride, and they had no choice but to pull each other close, to preserve the object between them, otherwise it would drift free and fall and lose its light.

They begin an affair, he moves in with her and the boy (who in some way might have been that filament, the son of his very good friend). The story ends with a compromise: the three are a family of sorts although “(h)e and Lena wouldn’t love each other, but there was love they openly shared, and that would be enough, for now, to make a kind of family.”

A young black teenager escapes with his sister from a poor confining home and parents to follow a shallow bully and showboat classmate to a sleazy parade or festival downtown. It’s late at night and it looks very much like the boy is headed for dangerous trouble, but instead of that materializing he has a wild liberating epiphany.

A married man employed in security at a private school takes pictures of women on the street or subway sometimes and is lightly bothered by his obsession with these. He is asked to leave the school by his boss after an ambiguous altercation, and on the way home passing a girls’ school next door is confronted by several mothers of young teenagers who wrongly accuse him of sexual interest in the girls. The seriousness of that experience makes him even more troubled by the nature of his sex fantasies.

In one of the stories black author Walter Mosley is mentioned, and young (black) Brinkley has for me Mosley’s charm and class which welcome enjoyment of black-culture writing by all races, with never a hint of the victim, although racial inequality is never absent from the stories. They often seem to be headed in a particular narrative or content direction, but then change focus to something different, usually a bit sad or incomplete.

Brinkley deals directly with race, alcohol, sex, and shame in scenes that seem themselves to be harsh, but his gentle tone and the imaginatively rational ambiguity everywhere in his work lets us see these difficult issues and scenes in a strangely benign and even friendly way. We come to expect more than hard and uncompromising impact and aren’t disappointed. It’s like the experience of reading stories by the much more mature Alice Munro, or Sam Shepard. These stories (as I said about Shepard’s) aren’t about any thing so much as they are themselves their own objects.

This review doesn’t do justice to the scope of Brinkley’s writing. I feel more convinced than usual reading first-effort short stories that he will move to bigger things with confidence.

I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I did. 9.4/9.3

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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