Brinkley, Jamel. A Lucky Man. Graywolf. Minneapolis: 2018. 264 pp. $26.00 (cloth). [View Title on Goodreads]

Reviewed by Brian Gilmore

It was Edgar Allan Poe who wrote that “the long poem is a paradox.” Poe’s famous exploration of limitations of the long poem form was declared to shine brighter light on short story, or “the tale,” as he humbly calls it. According to Poe, the tale was more fitting for the “demands of high genius.” There is, Poe stresses, much more space to speak to seek a “truth” in the short story than in a poem.  Jamel Brinkley in his debut collection of short stories, A Lucky Man, has chosen the tale as his path to truth, though he writes often in a delicate lyric detail more often observed in poetry.

The opening lines to the first story here, “No More Than A Bubble,” is one of many such admirable passages: “It was back in those days. Claudius Van Clyde and I stood on the edge of the dancing crowd, each of us three bottles into one brand of miracle brew [. . .]” (pg. 3). His language is sensitive, vivid, yet full of anguish on occasion. Most of the stories in A Lucky Man might be deemed long (not too long), and he pushes against the boundaries of some accepted norms of the traditional mechanics of short fiction. Writer Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, often preached that a story should always start as close to the end of the story as possible. Brinkley does that much of the time, but Brinkley’s tales are also slow drips; he is in no hurry, and he is unafraid of the deliberate creative process no matter where the story takes off.

“A Lucky Man,” the title story, and the first story I read (I randomly chose it) adheres to this rule. Here is a story, like many of these tales, deftly rooted in character. The so called “lucky man,” Lincoln Murray, seems lucky but that is the point of it all; he doesn’t realize it. He works at a prestigious New York City private school, married, with a daughter, and life is apparently orderly though underneath chaos looms. In this slow uncovering, “A Lucky Man” asks: what is “lucky” and how fleeting is this luck, in our real, every day, morally challenging lives? This especially comes forth when we learn what Lincoln has done to compromise his safe, lucky world in the worst way.

There are many stories in A Lucky Man about the complexity of manhood and, understandably, black men and the struggle for meaning intheir lives, love, and ultimately validation. Whether Brinkley is writing of missing fathers, personal relationships, and/or city life struggles, these tales are commentary on a subject lost in today’s headlines and daily street chatter: male vulnerability and the inability to be completely emotionally exposed, for a multitude of reasons.

“J’ouvert,” a reference to a Trinidadian culture festival, embraces the theme of vulnerability like a lover. Brinkley’s deepest concerns spill out on the page in this story of two brothers—Ty, and Omari—who face a demeaning poverty, but who, most of all, are bemoaning the absence of their father from their lives. Their often painful machinations on the void in their lives is presented in plain view. Ty, the older brother, unable to even afford a sharp fade (haircut) for an upcoming West Indian parade, does what many poor black boys do in resisting or eschewing vulnerability: he improvises and shields his pain from the world:

It was a hot breezeless day, the air gauzy and wet. Though the sun was high in the sky, a lone and distant object, its energy came from everywhere at once. I wandered around the neighborhood tugging down the bill of my Knicks cap. (pg. 34)

The rhythmic poetic devices used here are just a part of the writing—not all of it—but essential nonetheless. “J’ouvert” is a coming of age story where the coming of age happens at supersonic speed without even a modicum of empathy. It is full of descriptions, such as the one above, that force the reader to inhabit the tale and feel its texture and emotions as the two boys take their journey.

“Everything The Mouth Eats,” another tight tale, is an excursion into the world of capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts dance practice. Like James Baldwin in his most famous tale, “Sonny’s Blues,” Brinkley uses psychic distance and the enduring presence of one brother on the mind of the other brother (the narrator) to carve out a tale of kinship that becomes like capoeira on the page: part music, dance, but also full of a story with tension and theater.

Yet, “Everything The Mouth Eats,” like so many other stories here, is also about respect. The pressure here is natural: the story’s characters, Eric and Carlos, are brothers but stepbrothers. Eric, the narrator, is older and longs for the relief of love from the father of his stepbrother, Carlos. The father validates the brothers’ relationship, and Brinkley brings the man to life well in passages such as this:

He was an overweight but striking Puerto Rican man, with large hands, light skin, and wide active eyes. With his thick black horseshoe mustache, he was trying to approximate or even surpass Willie Colon, whose face would appear again and again if you flipped through the sleeves of his record collection. (pg. 79)

Here, the stepfather’s presence in the life of the older stepson is presented in detail, but it also acknowledges the sustaining love central to the friction between the brothers at the capoeira event.

There is a recurring spirit in A Lucky Man that will become noticeable and perhaps, niggling to some readers. That feeling is of men (black men) persistently missing from others’ lives, whether intended or not. Brinkley’s many men are out of prison, like Curtis Smith, in “A Family,” who has been missing and is seeking to return. Or take the deceased father in “No More Than a Bubble,” who gives his son a condom years ago, in a rite of passage moment, so that the son may put it to use at the right and necessary moment.

A Lucky Man seeks desperately for these missing men, and tells some of their stories with Brinkley’s beautifully rough prose. The men and boys who are here cope and they wear bird masks to hide their pain or pretend they are robots. Or they are like Clifton, from the final story, “Clifton’s Place,” who is forever missing, and gone from the life of his lover, Sadie, but nevertheless present—having loved so well, she names her bar after him, and seeks to endure life without him the only way she knows how, through hope and memory.

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BRIAN GILMORE is the author of three collections of poetry, including his latest We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters, a 2014 NAACP Image Award and 2015 Hurston/Wright Award nominee in poetry. He is a long time columnist with the Progressive Media Project, and is both Cave Canem Fellow and Kimbilio Fellow. He teaches public interest law at Michigan State University.