I’ve been a Jason Mott fan since reading his debut, THE RETURNED. Jason writes with the beauty of a poet, and his stories make me think. And keep me thinking. His latest, HELL OF A BOOK, is a powerhouse of a novel: heartbreaking and hilarious; magical and raw.
The protagonist, an unnamed Black author diagnosed at fourteen with “a day dreaming problem,” shot to fame by writing a hell of a book. According to this guy, “Reality as a whole—past or present—just isn’t a good place to hang out.”
When we meet the nameless author, he’s crisscrossing the country on an exhausting book tour, and running through a hotel corridor, naked, being chased by the husband of a woman he’s just slept with. And yet the person he’s really running from is himself. He wants to be liked, to be a good person; to stop feeling lonely and alone. To be hugged. To avoid grief.
His publicist styles the author in sports jackets and tells him to not write about being Black, because activism is murder on book sales. (He’s crunched the numbers to prove it.) Meanwhile, the agent piles on high-profile out-of-town gigs, while hounding the author to deliver his next book. Which he hasn’t started, despite a hefty advance.
Each of his chapters begins with humor, perfectly balancing the second storyline: a gut-wrenching tale about a young Black boy trying to become invisible to stay safe. A boy who’s nicknamed Soot by bullies on the school bus. A boy who sees his father, returning home from a run, gunned down by a cop outside their family home.
The two stories weave together when the author hallucinates a young Black kid. Lines blur between fact and fantasy; we know only that both survived trauma and tragedy. Is the kid Soot, or a younger version of the author himself?
As the pace of the book tour intensifies, the author moves closer to his hometown in rural Carolina. Meanwhile, a constant news cycle of shootings plays in the background. Or maybe it’s the same shooting. If so, who is the victim?
There’s a strong sense of sadness and loss as the story reaches the end, but also empathy and hope that lingers. Ultimately, it’s about self-love, about not running away. Reading the compassion of the last ten pages was a humbling experience for a middle-class white woman, who has never had to teach her son about being Black or poor. Typing this, I find myself in tears, because I can’t leave behind the question: When does it end?
In an interview, Jason said he hopes that the novel becomes outdated and irrelevant. Until then, if you only read one novel on race, let it be HELL OF A BOOK.