A writer on a book promotion tour can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t. As events blur from comic to tragic, he cannot avoid facing the memories he is repressing.
Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott, may be a personal story about a writer untethered from his memories, but its scope is much broader. This is a heartbreaking critique of systemic racism, in particular the exhaustive grief that accumulates in the face of racism. Racism’s relentless presence wears people down, riles them up, outrages them, and yet it feels all but insurmountable to address.
Mott’s story alternates between the unnamed writer and a boy who is called Soot. The writer initially has comic misadventures – in one scene, he flees naked down a hotel corridor, pursued by a jealous husband – before shifting into more disjointed and unsettling encounters in which he cannot distinguish between reality and his over-active imagination.
The other story follows a boy who is cruelly nicknamed “Soot” by the bullies at his school because his skin is so black. When Soot is young, his parents teach him how to become invisible so that no harm can come to him. His father tells them that so long as he isn’t seen, he will stay safe.
At first, Soot playfully tries to turn invisible, if only to avoid the bully on his school bus. He only masters the talent on the day he witnesses his father being shot down by a police officer. The trauma drains him of identity, as he is now one more indistinguishable child who has lost his father to a racist shooting.
Mott brings the writer and Soot together at crucial junctures, whenever the writer is going to absurd lengths to avoid learning about the latest shooting. The tone turns serious as the writer begins to unravel. During interviews about his book, he cannot even remember what it is about:
“I can’t remember anything about my book. Haven’t been able to since I wrote it. Writing it was like carving out a piece of myself. And once it was cut away, I left it there. I moved on, perhaps a little more incomplete than before, but at least able to ignore the pain of the emptiness more than I could bear the pain of the memory.”
Memory is a key theme throughout, as Soot discovers that writing preserves the presence of his father in his life, whereas the writer cannot bear to recall the death of his own mother. On a larger scale, the memories of violence against BIPOC become so overwhelming that it is difficult to distinguish one shooting from the next. What do you do when the relentless grief is crushing you? There is no opportunity to process and to heal from one shooting before another rises.
Mott also skewers assumptions about racial identity when he clearly identifies the boy as black by his cruel nickname, “Soot,” and yet waits until a quarter of the way through the book before identifying the writer as Black. Only when Renny, a limo driver, states explicitly that the writer is Black does the writer discover this fact: “’Am I?’ I ask. I look down at my arm and, sure enough, it turns out that Renny is right. I’m Black!” What follows is a fascinating discussion about the assumptions that Black writers should only write about the Black experience (and what does that even mean?).
What this scene also addresses is the reader’s assumptions that the main character must be Black, because Mott is Black. Yet, are all other characters White by default, unless otherwise indicated? It also raises the question about Black writers wanting the freedom to write anything, but given the prevalence of racism, how can they write about anything else? Their craft is forcibly being limited by the expectations that they can only write about one thing.
As challenging as all this may sound, Mott does promise that the book is a love story. The opening chapter is filled with idyllic scenes of a happy family, of all that is possible when we are safe. The goal is how to make this the reality. Mott suggests that it comes from facing memories, trauma, racism, and rediscovering love, that it is possible. As the narrator-writer states, “Like maybe Narcissus had spent his whole life hating himself before that one day when he saw his own beauty, his own worth.”