We are in a cultural moment where men’s predatory behavior — in the workplace, at parties, in living rooms and in the White House — has wrung dry any grace that dictums like "boys will be boys" previously provided. Critics sportingly hunt down that dictum wherever it appears, and one only wishes it a rapid extinction.
Personally, I hunger for more complicated views of masculinity. I couldn’t stop talking about Moonlight after I saw it. I remember curling up with my blanket and emotions on an airplane, landing and renting it again as soon as I returned to my apartment. I paused only to appreciate the beauty of its tonal blues and tenderness; its achingly beautiful and wholly unpredictable grace.
A Lucky Man, out this May, is the stunning debut short story collection by Jamel Brinkley, one that reminds me of Moonlight. It is not a book about gay men, though. Rather, Brinkley explores black men under both the pressurized violence and bottled up tenderness that undoes them at every turn. This is a book that acknowledges male stereotypes while subverting them and exploring the psychic damage they leave in their wake.
Brinkley builds his stories over the lowly clatter of life: recent college graduates on the prowl for girls; teenage boys on the prowl for a glance up a skirt; small boys on the prowl for haircuts that will make them look like men; and grown men on the prowl for something, anything, that will make them feel more whole.
Brinkley describes women as men on the hunt might see them, except perhaps more admiringly. In “No More Than a Bubble,” two young men arrive at a Harvard party convinced the girls there “wore better, tinier underwear than the girls [they] knew” and were “mad geniuses of their bodies.” Women seen by the men in Brinkley’s stories are creatures full of wiles and mysterious ways. A classic male gaze. But even while writing from the points of view of his characters, Brinkley writes with precision about women, letting the men who hunger after them witness a complicated dimensionality. Each story also carries, even while traversing the superficiality of a college party, the profound tenor of old wounds (about race, family, and yearning).
All nine of the stories in this collection share an identical architecture, but Brinkley’s endings are so ethereal and luminous that one is hardly bothered. Brinkley’s stories find their footing on the violent edge of gender performativity and end in a reach for language to describe the incomprehensible.
One ending is so beautiful, I must share it. But will not give you any context so as not to ruin your reading:
Claudius was sitting in the bed, staring at me. All at once an acute ugliness shuddered into being, a face revealed within a face, and he must have seen it within mine too. It has been that way with people in my life, with people I have loved: a fine dispersal, a rupture as quiet as two lips parting, a change so sudden one morning, so slight, you wonder if they had ever been beautiful at all.
Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man is as compulsive to read as an addictive novel. It is a gripping tapestry of boys at that juncture of life where the men they are to become “[begins] to erupt out of [them], like a flourish of horns." It's also a tapestry of those moments where the distances, hesitations and intimacies become the crack of these men’s breaking.
Catch Jamel Brinkley at the Booksmith (1644 Haight St) in San Francisco on May 7 at 7:30pm.
The Spine is a biweekly column. Catch us back here in two weeks.