Där vinden vilar

Out of all the books I’ve read in my life, in all the places, Samar Yazbek‘s Där vinden vilar was the first to have me so engrossed that I missed my stop on the subway. Maybe that’s really the only review I need to write.

A young soldier in the Syrian civil war has been grievously injured by friendly fire. Ali’s struggle to reach the shelter of a nearby tree is interspersed with flashbacks to important people and moments of his short life. The lyrical translation from Marie Anell paints a vivid picture of a dreamy and mystical young man with a deep reverence for nature, completely ill-suited for the battlefield. Yazbek also uses this limited perspective to depict dictatorships from a grassroots, ground-up perspective.

If there’s any criticism to be made, you could argue that Ali is deliberately crafted to have the maximal emotional impact; to be the perfect war casualty. He is just too kind, too innocent to be anything but deeply sympathetic. The comparison to Frère d’âme is a natural one to make here, given their similar topics and structures. In Frère, however, it seems like Diop makes at least some effort to present unsavory or off-putting aspects of Alfa’s character alongside his more admirable traits. As a result he ends up as a perhaps more realistic, or at least more typical, teenage boy.

But I think if Yazbek had taken the same approach, it would have landed very differently, potentially undermining the point of the book. In a way, Ali is less of a character and more of a symbol, a way to link the anonymous violence of the battlefield to the people and the communities it devastates. He’s the best parts of everyone’s lost son, the physical embodiment of the collective hope a village or town has for their young people, the perfect angel doting parents see in their children. Alfa’s story is about himself; Ali’s story is about the people around him.

En flöjt av mörker

Somaya el Sousi was one of the writers featured in the flash fiction edition of Karavan, and one of the poets reading at Litteraturmässan, so that’s how I became aware of her. I picked up her slim Swedish collection, En flöjt av mörker, at Litteraturmässan in a fit of optimism. I had just read a whole book on how to read poetry metaphorically! Work was beginning to slow down! I could give this poetry collection my best college try and immerse myself in, according to the back of the book:

en berättelse där vi färdas genom tid och rum, och bortom tystnaden*

and fight alongside el Sousi in, quote:

kampen att vara sann mot sig själv som människa**

and bear witness to, quote:

hur samkönad kärlek kan gestaltas i sammanhang där den är förbjuden***

I really gave it my best possible try. I read things slowly, multiple times, out loud. I diligently looked up every unfamiliar word, and most of the vaguely familiar ones as well. It took ten years of collaborative work to translate the collection from Arabic to Swedish; el Sousi is a Palestinian refugee currently residing in Norway. I have mountains of respect for what she’s been through as a person and for the work it took to make this small volume of work available to me in Swedish.

And yet.

I’m still left feeling like the back-of-the-book description above is on par with a hackneyed description of a mediocre wine, and I pick that metaphor deliberately. A friend of mine was once asked to take over the tastings at a winery for a couple hours while the real owner had to run some kind of emergency errand. He and his companions made up the most ridiculous descriptions, really bonkers off-the-wall stuff, as they served wine they had only just tasted themselves to the guests arriving after them.

And the guests all went along with it. No one thought to question their authority or their presentation of the wine. The owner returned and took over tasting duties at an appropriate moment, and my friend’s group went on their way.

I get the impression that the same thing happens with any poetry that is still too new to have been put through the crucible of time to emerge either as a classic or just cruft. The owner is out to lunch and we have people who don’t know any better stringing together vague phrases and aphorisms to try to sell the product to us.

It’s either that, or I have to give up and admit that the problem is me.

*a story that takes us through time and space, beyond the silence

**the struggle to stay true to one’s self as a person

***how same-sex love can be depicted in an environment where it’s forbidden

Vacation Reading List 2024, Part 1

Another visit back to the US this Saturday! What are my reading plans?

  • Back issues of Karavan and Historiskan for the journey.
  • I have La vengeance m’appartient by Marie NDiaye in paperback from the library and in Swedish (Min är hämnden) on my phone.
  • I also have digital copies of Burnout: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat by Hannah Proctor and The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry.
  • Last year I left my copy of David Graeber’s Debt at my parents’ house, so maybe I’ll pick it up a third time to see if anything more sticks.

Of course, now that I’ve written all that down, I will immediately get distracted by a library or bookstore and wander over to something completely unrelated. This is the way.

The Dawn of Everything

What a doorstopper!

The reason I meticulously note (almost)* everything I read here is so that I remember reading it. I don’t know enough about the brain to know if writing about things really helps it transfer over to long-term memory, but I’ve already had the experience of completely forgetting something I said or did until I re-read a journal entry about it, so I assume the same holds true for books.

All of that to say, I don’t think I’m capable of doing The Dawn of Everything justice here. In a nutshell, David Graeber and David Wengrow look at archeological and anthropological evidence to (in their own words) “ask better questions.” The paradigm that they’re trying to upend is actually quite similar to the one that Stephen Jay Gould also sought to demolish in Full House:

The argument Gould makes in Full House is basically one against the teleological framework of evolution: that things evolve for some higher purpose, or more specifically deliberately towards complexity; that complexity is somehow the best, most special, or most desirable form of life.

(quoting my own summary there)

But instead of deconstructing a teleology with complexity as the end goal, here Graeber and Wengrow are deconstructing a teleology with agriculture and the state as an end goal; that agricultural was an instant revolution that inevitably led to an apparatus we currently call “the state,” and that the world we are living in now is more or less the inevitable end state of things. They also occasionally take the time to dunk on Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

The whole book is something like 400, 500 pages to argue against this conclusion, and frankly I don’t have the recall or the comprehension to reconstruct it here. Like David Graeber’s Debt, I’ll have to read this one multiple times to really be able to confidently explain its premise. What I can say after one read-through is that they believe the archeological evidence points towards a history of mankind that experimented with flexible and novel arrangements of power that, even on a large scale, preserved what they call the three basic freedoms: the freedom to make promises, the freedom to disobey orders, and freedom of movement (the freedom to leave a place if the situation becomes too onerous).

There’s a lot of non-fiction that I read because I have weird niche interests, or because I ran across it at the library and it seemed interesting. There’s also non-fiction that I tackle because I want to better understand the world I live in, and The Dawn of Everything falls squarely in that category. More than that, there’s a category of non-fiction that I wish were required reading so we could start building consensus reality again and so we could maybe learn something from history. The Dawn of Everything is one of those books.

*Some are so niche and special interest that I don’t really see the point in including them here in my public record of reading. My commonplace book, as it were.

I Have Come on a Lonely Path

Seo Choi has put out multiple successful Kickstarter projects, including several books, that highlight various aspects of traditional Korean spiritual practices. The latest one that just went to print was Keum-Hwa Kim’s I Have Come on a Lonely Path: Memoir of a Shaman. (Original Korean: 비단꽃 넘세)

According to Choi’s initial Kickstarter description, the original edition of I Have Come on a Lonely Path published in 2007 was popular enough to be made into a movie, but fell into obscurity (or maybe just “hard to obtain” territory) when the publisher went out of business in 2011. An American friend of Choi’s happened to have a copy and gave it to Choi, who has made it available for the first time in English through her micropublishing company Alpha Sisters. I supported the Kickstarter at the ebook tier and received my copy back in April.

Seo Choi’s copy of the original Korean edition. Read more at the Kickstarter page.

The book isn’t especially long; I read the entire thing on commutes, lunch breaks, and waiting for friends at bars. The chapters are relatively short so you can dip in and out as you have time. Peace Pyunghwa Lee’s translation is excellent, with plenty of explanatory footnotes for historical context and specific cultural or technical terminology—the names of items of clothing, food, or particular rituals and so on.

Through Lee’s translation, Kim presents her story directly, without needless digressions or flowery ornamentation. The introduction to I Have Come on a Lonely Path includes a content warning for “domestic abuse, physical violence, war, mental illness, suicide, poverty, police brutality, and discrimination” but the depictions thereof were rather plain and brief. I’ve read much more unsettling accounts, in fiction as well as non-fiction. Through it all, Kim remains humble, compassionate and empathetic. We follow her from her birth in 1931 in what later became North Korea, through early poverty and her shamanic initiation as a teenager, to her middle years living on the fringes of society in South Korea, until the latter stage of her life as a recognized carrier of intangible cultural property (the Seohaean baeyeonsingut) with performances in the US and on live South Korean television, a feature-length biopic, and the founding of her shrine on Ganghwa-do. She speaks frankly of these accomplishments without any sense of self-aggrandizement, maybe because the struggles of her early years kept her humble. First and foremost for Kim is the preservation of a tradition and living a life of service; those honors seem to be more about that preservation and service than about herself. She also lived through interesting times, as the expression goes. We don’t get any commentary on the titans of twentieth century Korean  history here, however. Kim only mentions events directly impacting her or her clients. This is mostly in the form of ill-tempered Japanese officials or South Korean discrimination against North Koreans, but to my embarrassment her story was also the first I’d heard of the New Village Movement.

In light of the New Village Movement, particularly the less savory aspects that bring to mind Mao’s Cultural Revolution, translation projects like I Have Come on a Lonely Path are important for maintaining the traditions and integrity of a culture. The thought struck me sometime afterwards that in some ways it’s comparable to the translation movement in Arabic that preserved so many manuscripts in Greek and Latin for scholars in Medieval Europe to rediscover and to include in the early years of the European academic tradition. Sometimes knowledge, ideas, and stories need to drift from one language or culture to another to ensure their own longevity. Power consolidation, especially within the structure of colonialism, is often based on rendering these ideas forgotten.

Overall this was a quick and fascinating read, at least for any Koreaboo (such as myself) curious about Korean folklore and traditions. The English edition includes an afterword from Kim’s niece, who continues in the same shamanic tradition (she is Kim’s “spirit daughter”—mentee—in addition to being her brother’s daughter) and currently maintains the shrine Kim established on Ganghwa-do. If it’s not your bag, it’s not your bag, but in the informal itinerary I’m building for my next trip to Korea I just added Incheon and Ganghwa-do.

Litteraturmässan 2024: Konsten att läsa

Another Litteraturmässan has come and gone! What did I learn about the art of reading from the various talks and panels I attended?

1. Eight poets
Not much. I only dipped in after Somaya El Sousi’s reading and wasn’t particularly taken by what was on offer so I dipped out quickly thereafter. Instead, I bought a copy of her poetry collection and sat with it throughout the day. I’m left wondering if listening to her read would have made any difference. I’m also left wondering how to address the apparent gap in my Swedish where spoken poetry becomes just an incomprehensible wave of sound, why is that?

2. Missenträsk revisited
I wasn’t originally planning to attend this one because I don’t know anything about Sarah Lidman, but I got drawn into the discussion with Jennifer Hayashida as I was walking by the stage and stood and listened to nearly the entirety of it. While my own feelings about literary translation as a career constantly waver from “wow living the dream” to “too much pressure for me to handle,” I am drawn like a moth to the flame of literary translators themselves. Sometimes envious, always admiring.

3. What do we do when we read?
This was billed as a “phenomenological investigation,” and while I don’t think it was quite that deep, Nioosha Shams was also so engaging that I stopped in my tracks to listen. Fun to see the topic of bibliomancy come up at a serious academic event.

4. Renew your library card
The one talk that I had actually scheduled in my life after a concerted effort to finish Singulariteten, but like the two previous talks, Karam was so lively and charming I probably would have wandered into it anyway. The meaning of libraries for nerdy kids from decidedly non-academic families, how they should (and shouldn’t) be designed and supported.

5. Four poets
I had an easier time with this poetry reading. Maybe because this was a different genre/generation of poets, or maybe because this was the evening portion of the event at Musikaliska Kvarteret and I had started imbibing, who knows. That said, this is where I began to feel like a dinosaur even though the people in charge of putting on this event are (as far as I can judge these things) at least my age if not older. A young man in a t-shirt and jeans and slightly greasy (or maybe heavily stylized with product?) hair looked so nervous and out of place that I wanted to go up and say something friendly to him, but then he turned out to be one of the poets reading this time around. Everyone around me, seated either on the floor or a vintage fancy couch (how bohemian), exuded powerful art student vibes. Nike Markelius read poetry about her mother’s death set to a soundtrack and I got pretty choked up.

6. How to write a novel
Several drinks had happened by now. If you held a gun to my head and asked me to summarize the arguments made by either Stefan Lindberg or Jerker Virdborg, or the main points of  “Manifest för ett nytt litterärt decennium,” I would be well dead.

7. Hundra hästar (Maria Törnqvist med band)
Not sure what a musical act had to do with the art of reading, but maybe Maria Törnqvist expressed some of her academic work in the form of song and it just passed me by. The band slapped, at least.

And it was at that point, dear reader, I realized that I was too sleepy and too awkward to enjoy the rest of the night, so I went out on a high note and caught the subway back home.

Singulariteten

Balsam Karam is my most recent Baader-Meinhof phenomenon: I first heard of her when an Internet associate announced that he had been invited to host a panel discussion called “Read the World,” with Karam as one of the guests, at the Fold literary festival. Not long after that, a précis by Karam about Brazilian author Jeferson Tonorio was featured in the issue of Karavan I was reading at the time. Then when skimming the events for Litteraturmässan I saw that she would holding a talk with Peter Englund about the role and potential of libraries. Three points make a line and all of that.

I looked up Karam as soon as I learned she wrote in Swedish, always trying to fight the inertia to read books in English by default. If the timestamps in Discord conversations are anything to go by, then, I’ve been working on Singulariteten since February 20. I have Händelsehorisonten on deck, too, but Singulariteten was just so much that I might admit defeat with Händelsehorisonten for the moment and save it for later.

Singulariteten is a tale told backwards, starting at the end of two stories, two lives. The paths of two nameless women cross, briefly, along a trendy corniche in the tourist district of an unnamed country recently emerged from (or perhaps still intermittently engaged in) sectarian violence. One of the women is a mother in search of her missing daughter; the other is a pregnant tourist who witnesses the first woman’s suicide. Later, back home, she has a miscarriage. Out of this intersection unfolds lifetimes of loss and trauma, as the rest of the book looks back to tell each story in its entirety. The whole thing is so grim and heavy that I was surprised when the living, breathing Karam in the discussion on stage was light, breezy, quick to laugh and quick to make jokes. Serious emotional whiplash.

Which is not to say that Singulariteten was so dour and joyless that I didn’t enjoy it; I came out the other end with a sense of satisfaction and catharsis (Aristotle would be pleased). This was due in part to the dense, complex language that forced me to read passages multiple times and to construct little sentence diagrams in my head, so all credit to English translator Saskia Vogel for excellent work. This isn’t Karam’s first novel, but thanks to Vogel it’s the first available in English.

The topic matter does prompt reflection over the kinds of novels we expect from certain kinds of authors. I want to say that there’s a James Baldwin essay, perhaps his own commentary on Giovanni’s Room, on the limitations of being expected on certain topics (in Baldwin’s case, racial discourse) simply by virtue of a facet of one’s identity (race), but maybe that essay doesn’t exist. Maybe I’m thinking of (and misremembering) “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Unsure. But there is a tension for me because I can’t help wondering: for a Kurdish author like Karam, do publishers, reviewers, readers expect a certain kind of book? If Karam had instead written an easy read feel-good romance, would it still have been published? (I have every confidence that it still would have been good.) Or do themes of being marginalized, racialized, and elsewise Othered have a demonstrably limited appeal to a mainstream audience that mean they get scrubbed down and sanitized? (Thinking again of Giovanni’s Room, which Baldwin was advised to burn lest it alienate his audience.)

Nell Irvin Painter to the rescue, with this essay for LitHub that I got in my inbox this morning but that is not yet available on their website.

I asked: who can I and we write about when I and we are Black authors? Those accomplished authors I mentioned [Imani Perry, Honorée Fanon Jeffers, and Zora Neale Hurston] wrote about Black people, and Black people and race in America are the subjects of virtually every book by a Black author of fiction, of nonfiction, and of journalism. I’m tempted to conclude that literary convention limits Black authors to a limited range of subject matter. Yes, there’s infinite variety within the realm of Blackness. Yet still, Black people only.

Painter is describing an English-language publishing industry with an American audience, but I think there are parallels to be made with Sweden. In the end I suppose I just have to trust in the fact that Singulariteten demonstrably exists, and take the book as proof of the fact that Karam wanted to write a story, any story at all, and accept that speculation about how that story may or may not have been crafted according to particular expectations from her publishers as unknowable and therefore irrelevant.

Karavan: Mikronovellernas universum

I guess magazines are the only thing I read anymore?

My third and final subscription (though Med andra ord looks interesting, and we won’t count Asymptote since I don’t send them any money) is Karavan, a literary magazine that focuses on literature in translation, primarily from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The theme for this issue was “micronoveller,” or microfiction. That makes this the first issue I’ve read where all the literature featured was self contained, i.e. no extracts from novels.

What did I learn? In brief, that microfiction is a rich tradition in Iraq, a popular new form of content on apps and websites in China, and that Ana María Shua is Argentina’s reigning microfiction queen. In addition to the (very short) stories and poems translated from Arabic, Mandarin, and Spanish, this issue featured interviews with Pilar Quintana and Monique Ilboudo, a précis on Jeferson Tonório by Balsam Karam (whose novel Singulariteten I recently finished) and an essay by Mariana Enríquez on journalism and Argentinian cuisine. Out of the new releases reviewed, this is my note to myself that Samar Yazbek‘s Where the Wind Calls Home (Swe: Där vinden vilar) sounded the most interesting.

Karam and a Palestinian poet from Gaza featured, Somaya el Sousi, were both featured at Stockholms litteraturmässan this past weekend. I was unable to attend el Sousi’s reading, though I did pick up her volume En flöjt av mörker. Karam’s panel discussion on libraries was much later in the day, however, and fit nicely into my schedule. She was very funny and very light, not at all what I would have expected from her writing here in Karavan or in Singulariteten, but those are separate thoughts.

Historiskan 4/2023

Since I’ve made such a deliberate point of trying to summarize what I’ve read in the Delayed Gratification magazine that I subscribe to, I thought I would do the same for Historiskan, another periodical I subscribe to.

1. A brief essay from Cecilia Nordlund about founding Popkollo.

2. A highlight on three women—Gerda Meyerson, Maria Forsell, and Emma Anstrin—who were part of fighting for Deaf rights alongside an article about plans for a Museum of Deaf Culture that will open in 2026.

3. An interview with Eva Dahlman about her upcoming book about women photographers in Sweden from 1848 to 1968.

4. The cover story: Eva Bonde writing on basically A League of Their Own, aka the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Bonde points out that part of the post-war decline of the AAGPBL was the advent of television and televised games: people who enjoyed watching the sport no longer had to actually attend games, but could watch from the comfort of their homes. An interesting point I didn’t think much about before, though I also never thought much about women’s baseball in the US except with respect to, well, A League of Their Own. And it was of course segregated, so Black women weren’t included and instead played alongside men in the Negro Leagues. (I remember reading about the Negro Leagues in elementary school but not finding it all that interesting as a ten-year-old; it’s since become one of those things that I feel like I should read about now as an adult, in part because I’m more interested in baseball now than I was as a ten-year-old.)

5. A bio of author Maria Gripes by Lisbeth Håkansson Petré in honor of the centennial of her birth. The headline called her one of Sweden’s most read authors of children’s and young adult novels but I’d never even heard of her until this, so I guess that’s another cultural gap filled. A big part of the reason I subscribe to these kinds of magazines.

6. A history of political protest music in South America by Bella Stenberg. A lot of it focuses specifically on nueva canción in Chile and the women involved with the movement: Violetta Parra, Margot Loyola, Gabriela Pizarro, and Mercedes Sosa.

7. A brief biography by Karin Tegenborg Falkdalen of Kristina av Holstein-Gottorp, a queen of Sweden. Not my favorite Drottning Kristina but still an interesting read nonetheless.

8. A brief on the “tickle torturers” (les chatouilleuses) of Mayotte by Victoria Machmudov. It’s kind of wild to read about a colony rejecting independence, but maybe my brain is melted from being American. Some of the major players in the movement to break away from the rest of the Comoros archipelago and retain a connection with France were women, including Zéna M’déré. Unsurprisingly, things aren’t going great in Mayotte at the moment. Their wealth relative to their neighbors in the archipelago has led to a lot of immigration, but they’re still the poorest departement in France.

9. A look at the women in the animal rights movement by Camilla Bergvall: Lizzie Lind af Hageby, Leisa Schartau, Princess Eugénie, Elna Tenow, Ellen Börtz, Birgitta Carlsson, and Ruth Harrison.

10. Another historical biography, this time Olga of Kiev, by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson.

11. A look by Pauliina Räsänen at what the circus life entailed for women at the turn of the 20th century and its role as a space of relative liberation: a break from gender norms, the ability to travel freely, being able to support one’s self (and out-earning a lot of men, at that). Too many names for me to bother listing but I thought Laura Madigan was interesting if only because of the tragedy surrounding her and her family.

12. Mette Hardenberg and her encounter with a demon, as summarized by Julia Håkansson. It’s a mildly interesting story, certainly moreso than that skeletal Wikipedia entry makes it out to be, so I’ll summarize the summary here:

Hardenberg got married off, as women tended to do back in the 1500s. Her husband published an account, in which he claims that his wife is unwilling to share the story herself but that he thinks it’s worth telling. For a period of six weeks, she was tormented by an evil spirit that beat the shit out of her if she mentioned God. Then she had a vision (in a dream?) of God, who told her to make a pilgrimage from Totterupholm to a tower in the Vallø castle. It was a trip of thirty kilometers and she went disguised as a beggar, and then at the end she had a showdown with the demon in said tower, where she won thanks to her knowledge of the Bible.

It’s hard to know what to make of the account today. The go-to explanation is that it was some kind of mental health struggle, and historians point to similar problems that had afflicted other members of her family. Others have more recently suggested that it could have been a form of marketing as a show of Hardenberg’s spiritual strength in conquering a demon—and modesty in not wanting to talk about it—that would win her esteem in the eyes of the church.

13. And finally, a longer piece by Sari Nauman on the first refugees in Sweden: from then-Swedish Latvia to Sweden proper during The Great Northern War which lasted over twenty goddamn years, what a grim thing to consider. (People were already fleeing religious persecution before The Great Northern War, of course, but the first time the Swedish word for refugee—flykting—appears in text it’s in connection with a woman fleeing Russian aggression in the Great Northern War.)

Homeboy

I summarized my “acute TBR” a few weeks ago thusly:

the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month).

Since then I have finished Frère d’âmeone of those Swedish reference books, and that third English reference book. And now Seth Morgan’s Homeboy! Will I wrap up the acute TBR before my trip to the US rolls around in May? Who knows!

This particular entry on the acute TBR was more acute than I realized at the time. By the time this post goes up, the book’s owner will be en route back to the UK, unlikely to return to Sweden again. I could have returned it to him unfinished, of course, and eventually procured my own copy. Or I could have held on to it and returned it on a future visit—a bold move on my part, but I know I would have followed through. Nothing wrong with either of those!

But Homeboy wasn’t just any recommendation—it was one that came up in a conversation about what I term “bagel books,” books that you like so much you simultaneously want to tear through them as quickly as possible and never want to keep reading because you don’t want them to be over. A bagel book is a very particular, almost hallowed kind of recommendation. Being able to spend a friend’s farewell party talking to him about one of his own bagel books was therefore an appropriate and meaningful send-off.

Personal circumstances aside, Homeboy is also an interesting work from a historical? biographical? perspective, the only novel from the man who was Janis Joplin’s fiancé at the time of her death. That’s the other reason I was keen to get into the book, even though by all accounts Morgan and Joplin had a really dysfunctional relationship. You could make an argument that Morgan was a contributing factor in her overdose, even, but that’s neither here nor there. This isn’t about my weirdly in-depth knowledge of Janis Joplin’s biography, it’s a book review!

In my farewell party extemporaneous analysis, I described Homeboy as a mash-up of Elmore Leonard and Jack Kerouac, though my friend didn’t entirely agree, so take that with a grain of salt. The plot centers around the theft of a rare diamond, the Blue Jager Moon, from pimp Baby Jewels Moses by protagonist Joe Speaker, and everyone’s subsequent attempts to recover it. Joe wants to eventually move it and get clean; Moses wants it for blackmail material over a judge on the California State Supreme Court; Officer Tarzon needs it as evidence to put Moses away and complete his own private revenge.

There’s a lot more than that going on, but reading it in summary isn’t the same thing as reading the book itself. Homeboy has an ensemble cast of street life characters who all have assorted arcs, rises and downfalls interwoven with the main Blue Jager Moon narrative. Morgan also has a knack for the right kind of details that make even one-off side characters instantly distinctive, like dealer Rigo La Barba:

Rigo La Barba slumped on the nod in the crushedvelvet front seat of his ’62 Impala lowrider at the corner of Sixth and Mission. He was called La Barba, the Beard, after his carefully groomed goatee.

Next to the highgrade chiva he dealt, La Barba was proudest of  his lowrider. It had jeweled vanity mirrors attached to the sun visors, a miniature crystal chandelier in place of the dome light, a goldplated chain steering wheel, and, next to the ivory Virgin atop the minklined dash, a keyboard on which he could play “Besame Mucho,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” or, more to the point, “Chinga Tu Madre,” according to his cholofied caprice. Over twentyeight handrubbed coats of topaxflake lacquer, sequined rococo script announced La Barba’s philosophy on one rear fender: Low ‘n’ Slow; and on the other he christened his chrome galleon Crystal Blue Persuasion.

Joe hits up La Barba once for some heroin and that’s it. We never meet La Barba again.

The whole thing is great fun and imbued with a surprising amount of pathos; I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t been turned into a movie yet, given the break-neck pace and the visuals, both comic and gory. Speaking of which, there is a fair amount of casual gore, and in fact a fare amount of casual just-about-everything. A good chunk of the story is set in prison, and when we’re not in prison we’re following the progress of pimps, hired goons, or sex workers, so it’s a lot. The two things worth mentioning are:

  1. Someone could probably write an essay on Baby Jewels Moses and anti-Semitic tropes. Is it so cartoonish and over the top that it circles back to become lampshade and subversion? Is it just Problematic? I’m not equipped to answer these questions.
  2. Someone could a probably write another essay on gender and sexuality in prison culture as depicted in Homeboy. The “queens” in the prison are central characters to some of the later events and fellow prisoners are mostly untroubled by their gender presentation. The AIDS epidemic also looms large in portions of the novel, with sympathetic rather than terrified undertones.

A fun, meaty book. A bagel book, even.