Most readers expect short fiction to bring a singular character to life. In many creative writing workshops, we’re taught it’s the base requirement for a short story: place someone (or some sentient thing) in a predicament, and show us how they change.
One of the factors that makes Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection, A Lucky Man, truly exceptional is that each story goes far beyond this basic formula. In Brinkley’s work, no character is left untended, no aspect of identity is overlooked, and the results are well-inhabited worlds that feel infinite. A lot of short stories exist in a snow globe, but the nine stories presented here are each a big bang. They burst forth through space and time. They are larger than the sum of their components.
Set mostly in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Brinkley’s stories feel expansive in part due to the balance of the outspoken and unspoken emotions of his characters, often young or middle-aged black men. No other writer comes to mind that does such a sound job of creating dissonance between the emotions young men feel in actuality and what they believe is representative of manhood. In stories like “J’ouvert, 1996” and “Wolf and Rhonda,” Brinkley expertly exposes the incessant social anxiety, toxic posturing, and bodily confusion of boys searching for their place in the world. These youthful imperfections create long-term consequences. Indeed, in many of Brinkley’s characters it’s easy to identify the amassing guilt and baggage that snowballs throughout a lifetime.
Much of this baggage, too, is inherited. Antiquated ideals of masculinity are passed from father to son, single working parents are caught between personal fulfillment and responsibility. Parents and other authority figures are always in the background to elucidate the generational disparities that lead to family strife and personal trauma. Sometimes they are abusive, sometimes they are chronically ill, and sometimes they are simply too busy working and living to parent.
“Wolf and Rhonda” is a good example. The story follows the dual narratives of its titular characters, who reunite at a high school reunion in middle age. Wolf, a former lothario and troublemaker, has a strained relationship with his father after causing too much trouble in his adolescence. “Fat Rhonda,” on the other hand, was ridiculed in high school while she took care of her sick mother at home. In both cases, Brinkley adeptly reveals how Wolf and Rhonda have transitioned from teenagers to adults, and the emotional toll their familial situations took in the years between.
This might seem like a lot to unpack in one short story, but rest assured the collection as a whole is structurally sound. Every character, setting, and detail is given close attention without straying from the larger narrative thread. Brinkley is a deft architect, one whose mastery of craft shines through innovation rather than recreation.
A grand cathedral of a story, “Everything the Mouth Eats” follows the reunion of two half brothers at a capoeira festival as they struggle to discuss the abuses perpetrated by their (step)father when they were growing up. With remarkably patient pacing, “Everything the Mouth Eats” contains a passage that could well serve as the collection’s thesis:
“I marvel at people rushing, rushing, headlong into things, how full of trust they are, how they can’t see what often lurks behind the floating vapor of a smile. But isn’t the family the first arena of such knowledge? Isn’t it family that, in so many ways, determines our approach to life’s deceptions?”
That lack of trust is always present. In the collection’s eponymous story, the marriage of a school security guard named Lincoln is uprooted because he is caught surreptitiously snapping photos of women on the subway. The betrayal, then, comes from all directions. Brinkley exposes the fragile social framework we rely on in riding public transit or frequenting a local dive bar. We are only capable of perceiving so much at once and what we intrinsically focus on circles back to those tender and truculent moments of upbringing.
A Lucky Man opens with “No More Than A Bubble,” a story that follows two college boys hoping to get lucky at a singles party. Yet, by morning, their ambitions and perspective of one another has drastically changed. The narrator, Ben, in a moment of clarity, considers such duplicity, both within his friend Claudius and humans in general.
“All at once an acute ugliness shuddered into being, a face revealed within his 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.”
Brinkley makes sure we know the beauty remains, even if it is obfuscated by the hard truths of racism, misogyny, and aging. Underneath it all, through all the vulnerable and traumatic moments, some slice of hope for a new direction holds strong. A Lucky Man is not only a standout debut for the year, but also a testament to what can be achieved in a short story.
FICTION – SHORT STORIES
A Lucky Man
By Jamel Brinkley
Published May 1, 2018
Jamel Brinkley’s stories have appeared in A Public Space, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been a Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing Fellow. He lives in Los Angeles.