Book review

The Residue Years by Mitchell S Jackson review – a tale of mourning and loss

This sparkling debut about an African American’s perilous bid to buy back his family home crackles with startling insights
Mitchell S Jackson: The Residue Years is ‘steeped in the author’s experiences’. Photograph: John Ricard

Black people and white people in the US, segregated in cities after policies in the 1930s mandated that social housing projects should be built separately for them, were further divided in the 1950s when white residents took up generous government subsidies to flee these projects for the suburbs. Decades later, the cheapness of properties in some of these neglected black neighbourhoods fuelled a reversal of white flight and gentrification. The family at the heart of The Residue Years is among those African Americans who succumbed to offers to sell up, and Mitchell S Jackson’s enthralling, autobiographical, award-winning debut novel (originally published in the US in 2013) is, in essence, the quest for a return to their home, to a physically impoverished yet emotionally rich Eden.Advertisement

Set in the 1990s, mostly in a poor black district of Portland, Oregon, the chapters alternate between the perspective of a mother, Grace, and her eldest teenage son, Champ. Grace is a penitent drug addict whose approach, even in rehab, seems borrowed from Oscar Wilde’s dictum: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Champ is a student smart enough to give a sardonic class presentation on disproportionate sentencing (soft cocaine versus crack cocaine) between white and black defendants; nonetheless, he supplements his own income through dealing. “Tough to count the days my [pungent] backpack’s freighted with more than books, with what’s a sure trigger for a federal charge.”

The mother-and-son relationship is fraught but tender. Grace is haunted by a Greek chorus of detractors she can’t shut out from her head, reminding her how she has wronged her children, as she herself was wronged. The notion of predeterminism stalks The Residue Years. In a courtroom, Champ witnesses a black defendant who crumples a perfunctory plea-bargaining note of contrition prepared by his lawyer, and tells the judge: “Fuck this. You think this gone stop? It won’t… cause we out here neck deep. If one go down, one come up… is the only law that counts.”

“Mister”, the big-time dope dealer, tells Champ, who wants to upgrade to two bricks (of cannabis), “Don’t let this slip your mind. Most of us, if we’re lucky, we see a few seconds of the high life. And the rest are the residue years.” Champ equates the high life with regaining occupancy of the old family house, sold to a middle-class white couple; he yearns to buy it back with his drug earnings.

The stories of mother and son interlock incrementally over the course of the book like bolts on a series of prison gates

This, then, is a novel of mourning and loss, steeped in the author’s experiences –Jackson was raised by a single mother and imprisoned as a youth after he was found guilty of drug offences – and populated by figures who evanesce. “I see a ghost, alive, but three-quarters dead or more,” says Champ, on the streets, bumping into his godmother, Dawn, previously an undisputed beauty now “sloped against a pole… a crack life specialist… a pound away from levitating.” With Dawn’s reappearance, Grace recalls her own past, huddled in dope dens, burning through every red cent of benefit cheques.

Jackson’s writing crackles and sparks with startling insights and descriptions: Grace gets a job from a sympathetic employer who’s “been through the fire and got a soft spot for folks that seen the flame”; Champ is on amber alert for the “mean-mugging misanthropes” whom he mostly evades. Of course, his luck will run out. When eventually robbed by rivals, Mister hands him a gun, adding: “They take from you. They take from me. And we can’t have that problem.” We know, as does Champ, that it’s the final piece of the tragic jigsaw puzzle of his young life. When he’s pulled over by a police patrol, your heart pounds as fast and hard as his.

The stories of mother-and-son interlock incrementally over the course of the novel like bolts on a series of prison gates, before reaching a devastating conclusion. Still, The Residue Years holds out for a fault in the logic, that Grace’s vision of her future (“Let the world see me now, a conqueror, high above my sorrows, a flagpole pushed through the pile”) will not prove delusional. But Champ knows he must relinquish the dream of returning home to a place of safety. Such a place is only to be found in the recess of his mind “where the lie of us won’t live”.

  • The Residue Years by Mitchell S Jackson is published by Little, Brown (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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