Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Charles Thomas Tester is a hustler: he'll do anything to bring in money really, he works to support himself and his ailing father. So whether it be playing his guitar for the masses as they board the trains of New York City or taking on more odd and under the table jobs, if there's money involved Tommy'll do it. 

His first mistake was taking a page from Ma Att's book. He knew what the book could do and he knew that Ma Att would be at a loss without that final page. But he also knew to keep a low profile or risk being caught. 

His second mistake was taking a ridiculous job in Flatbush. It was ridiculous first because the man wanted Tommy to sing and Tommy has a terrible voice. Even more ridiculous because of the $500 promised pay for playing, an astronomical sum in the 1920s. But Tommy needs the money and it's more than he's ever pulled for a single job, especially one so easy. 

Turns out there really is no such thing as easy money for a black man in 1920s New York. 

I have a confession to make, while I love the mythology of HP Lovecraft's work and ALL of the varying works inspired by that richly detailed world, I've yet to read any of the source material. That's right, I've never read Lovecraft. There. I said it.

But while I'm certain that fans of Lovecraft might get a bit more out of LaValle's book, you don't have to be at all familiar with Lovecraft to enjoy this dark horror story.

Interestingly, as I tried to find a way to voice exactly how I felt about the story, I came across this piece by Charlie Jane Anders for i09. Victor LaValle himself is quoted as saying: "I wanted to write a story set in the Lovecraftian universe that didn’t gloss over the uglier implications of his worldview. I also wanted it to be a hell of a lot of cosmic doom-filled fun."

Finding that quote was a bit serendipitous considering A. LaValle accomplishes both counts 100% and B. the racial issues were exactly what I was trying to work myself up to tackling. It was obvious in my reading, because I've followed some of the current... issues... around Lovecraft, that LaValle was giving voice to just that.

First, LaValle's character (based on EVERYTHING I've heard about Lovecraft) is all LaValle's own. Tommy Tester is a man of his times, one trying to rise above regardless of the restrictions set upon him by society. And this is part of his problem, a huge part of the driving force of his arc in fact.

The story is split into two parts with Tommy being our narrator for just one of those. The other half is told from the perspective of a cop, one who has the ability to see things that many around him can't. Malone, described as cadaverous and quite dogged, really isn't a good guy. He lies his way through the story to get what he wants, but in actuality gets what he deserves. (Mwahaha!) Reading from his perspective, while somewhat unpleasant given his views, flips the story around and gives the reader a chance to see the progression in a way that allows Tommy's fate to remain something of a mystery for a while. It also gives LaValle a chance to illustrate one of the fundamental problems faced by conscientious Lovecraft fans today - the man was a rampant racist with a creative talent.

Again, whether you're an avid Lovecraft reader or someone with little to know knowledge of Cthulu, the Great Old Ones, or Miskatonic University, you're bound to enjoy LaValle's tale. If you like 'em dark, that is :)

Rating: 4/5


Jennifer | Book Den said...

I know exactly where you are coming from! I can spot a lot of Lovecraftian things in books, but I haven't actually read much Lovecraft.

This book is on my must read list for this year so I'm glad to see you enjoyed it. And that it's dark! :)

Anonymous said...

Count me in the list of readers who read Lovecraft-inspired fiction, but never Lovecraft. (I feel better for your confession.) This one sounds interesting. :)