A Lucky Man
By Jamel Brinkley
Graywolf Press, May 2018
264 pages, $26.00
Reviewed by Tyrese Coleman
When I read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, finalist for the National Book Award, I thought of my brother, a young Black man not dissimilar from the men and boys portrayed in Brinkley’s debut collection. I thought of him and of the complexity of the men Brinkley captures in this beautifully-written and delicately-nuanced treatise on modern masculinity. In this collection, Brinkley presents us with the complex faces of Black men struggling with their emotions and daily lives, navigating how they show themselves to the world while also hiding some part of who they really are.
In A Lucky Man, manhood is a learned state of being, derived from family life. Sometimes, it is the replication of behaviors of others within the character’s family structure. Benito in “No More Than a Bubble,” worships women in a similar way in which he saw his father worship his mother, an obsession turned resentment. It is with this same seductive worshiping that Benito follows a short-lived obsession toward a sexual encounter with two women who appear supernatural in their indulgences, an encounter that forever changes him. Benito is a “sensitive soul” like his dad and begrudges his mother for divorcing his father. The two men think of her as if she is a sickness, “a froth in the veins, a disease of the blood.” Thinking of himself and his father, Benito says, “I don’t know, but I keep imagining what it would be like, to be a father to a boy who loves and believes in me and, despite all our differences, wants nothing more than to be a man in my image.”
More often, manhood is learned through internalizing parents’ actions and then making a distinct choice to do differently, whether good or bad. In “Everything the Mouth Eats,” Eric struggles to confront a past trauma that connects him to his brother and allow him to be vulnerable in front of others. He is attending a Capoeira Angola conference with his brother and his brother’s wife. Eric thinks of the “feints and trickery” associated with Capoeira, of how these acts of fraud are woven in as a way of thinking about the world, and marvels at how some people live absent the concept of lies. He says, “But isn’t the family the first arena of such knowledge? Isn’t it family that, in so many ways, determines our approach to life’s deceptions.”
Eric is also awed, shamed, and annoyed with his brother’s wife, Sulay who makes him realize that although he calls Carlos his brother, he doesn’t act as if he is family. He gets angry and tells her to “quit the nagging” though he knows she is right. Usually, it is the woman in the story who is the catalyst toward change, a new interpretation of how a boy reaches manhood.
In many ways, this book is a how-to on manhood, covering the intricacies of a man’s spirit. The collection is unlike other works I’ve read with Black men as lead characters in that it incorporates a contemporary gaze on race where the stories are not necessarily about race, but where the fact that the characters are Black is of vital importance to your understanding of them and who they are.
Many books written by Black men portray their relationships with Black women conservatively, either with clearly defined gender roles or keeping them to the periphery or completely unrepresented. The women in Brinkley’s stories defy these traditional roles, leavings the men or boys with contempt and love, respect and derision, and a guilty indulgence in male privilege that continues to exist even when the men in the story are being bested by a woman.
But the most complicated relationship always lies between a Black man and his mother. The mothers in Brinkley’s stories are not the typical, matriarchal archetypes of Black literature, willing to do anything for their sons and sacrifice their own nature and individuality. These women are human and flawed. They are women who turn a blind eye when their sons are sexual abused. They are single mothers who date and therefore expose their children to nasty boyfriends or capture the ire of resenting sons. They are women who walk out on their families.
The young men in these stories are unwilling to see their mothers as women with needs and desires beyond raising them, and are angry because they expect their mothers to live up to those stereotypes of the self-sacrificing mother who spoils and worships her son into the grave or jail.
In “J’ouvert 1996,” Ty’s mother is not concerned with what another boy in their neighborhood will think about Ty’s haircut. She says, “Trip ain’t got to make the sacrifices we do…For your brother, and for you too.” Ty says, “Don’t you mean Mike?” Or in “A Family” when Lena, a single mother, wants to go clubbing after work and tells her son he needs to be at home Saturday, her son responds, “While you out shaking your ass at the club.” The boys in both stories and in others are angry with their mothers for loving other men, men who did not father them or do not deserve their mother’s love, and will then, no doubt, become angry with all women.
A Lucky Man is a complex and beautiful collection that deserves all of the accolades it has received. It is a collection that stands up to Black literary traditions while giving young Black men like my brother a way to be seen and understood.