A debut novel should pack a wallop. Be it through the language or the themes, the feelings the text evokes in readers must be powerful and undeniable. Jesse McCarthy’s novel The Fugitivities does just that, and can perhaps be best explained as a music playlist curated by the likes of authors Jonathan Lethem and Percival Everett, with liner notes by musician and author Questlove. The book’s track list is just the right number of songs to get you to the connecting flight of your international rendezvous and contains the right amount of sentiment for contemplating your past and your future.
The novel focuses on young Jonah Winters, a Black man who spent his formative years in France but is now living in New York trying to figure things out. The book’s opening track could be called “Lost,” a title that speaks to Jonah’s feeling about his place in the world as a teacher who claims to be “giving back” to his community as it gentrifies under his feet, but ultimately feels his efforts are futile. This track title also captures how the book begins with a letter from a lost love. Arna made an imprint on Jonah’s heart just before he left Paris for the U.S. and she continues to tug at him from abroad. The young couple vow to keep in touch, and we get glimpses of how they have managed to simultaneously grow apart and closer through their continued correspondence. The song would be an interlude—a slow, jazzy number that is less than two minutes—setting the ambiance for the experience to come.
Jonah has—up to this point—been coasting through life, accepting what happens to him. From his first sexual experience, which Arna initiates, to developing a fast friendship and becoming roommates with a fellow teacher and music connoisseur, Isaac. The next track of the book could be “Confusion” as Jonah talks through his feelings with Isaac on whether he is truly making a difference with his students. This would be a proper song kicking off our journey with Jonah. The crossroads before Jonah has him rethinking the major decisions of his life and wondering just how much his tendency to play it safe has cost him. A chance encounter with a former classmate, Octavio, turns from pleasantries and catching up to a proposition to move to Rio de Janeiro for a chance to essentially take over the world. Octavio’s slick and outlandish sales pitch caught Jonah at a vulnerable enough time for him to consider taking that off ramp and changing life’s course.
The journey of the reader into this phase of the novel is that of a recognition of how McCarthy plays with language. He huddles over the words like a music producer crate-digging; checking for sounds and sifting through countless samples to align perfectly with vocals he already has in mind. The writing within this leg of the journey mirrors that of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Lethem expertly captures 1970s Brooklyn through a musical lens much the same way McCarthy captures the city’s change in real time. Isaac references various hip-hop songs as shorthand to explain how he and Jonah as Black men must hold themselves to certain standards and be architects building up the community, not cowards running from responsibility. This song would be percussive, with minimal lyrics, more like a call and response exercise from an MC working the crowd.
Approaching a tough decision by way of a series of bad decisions is never going to end well, but that doesn’t stop Jonah from begrudgingly going to a hipster mixer and getting blackout drunk. As he hops bars to continue spiraling, he passes out in the street. This is where the shimmering hi hat would fade into a crisp “chick” much like a ticking clock counting off the start of a funky, horn-heavy “To Dream of Paris.” When Jonah is nearly arrested for disorderly conduct and public display of drunkenness, as is common, life happens to him. He is rescued by Nate, a stranger and former NBA player who takes a chance and brings the young man to his home to recuperate. When Jonah comes to, there is a sharing of stories between him and the old hooper akin to a griot passing his storytelling skills to the one who will take his place in the village. Unfortunately, the amount of coincidence that is the impetus for this relationship—the random decision to save Jonah, the fact that Nate has also spent time in Paris living and losing love—is so much so that it feels nearly satirical.
Percival Everett’s Erasure comes to mind. It is a tangential comparison, but relevant in that Jonah’s attempt at self-sabotage actually leads him to fail upward as is the case with Everett’s protagonist. Jonah’s conversation with Nate inspires him to decide, perhaps even accidentally, to go to Rio. This song would go on longer than necessary, much like the digression of the book, which takes too many pages before returning to the present day, diluting the sense of urgency that Jonah perhaps should be experiencing ahead of a life-changing decision. The song would be a round-robin of solos where each bandmate gets to go twice—entertaining and a grand display of skill, but comes far too close to an over appreciation of self.
The final song of this mini listening party (though not the complete playlist, of course) is “Fugitive,” the titular theme song. This is the song playing on the plane to Rio. It is triumphant despite the unintuitive name; kettledrums, gongs, and rising strings that let the audience know that Jonah made the right decision. We know he will struggle with the idea of leaving a certain amount of responsibility behind, but self-discovery is more important to him because the questioning of his impact in the classroom boils down to a questioning of himself in the world. Rio is the beginning of a new potential, a potential that McCarthy puts on display within the themes of his work. It is clear that what may look like running away to some is actually an escape that could lead to a new kind of freedom, never to be taken for granted.
By Jesse McCarthy
Published June 8, 2021