Roughly a hundred years ago, James Joyce brought the life of Dublin’s residents to the page with musical, muscular language that hinted at the influential style he would mature into and showed off his ability to describe human frailties. Like Joyce, Mitchell S. Jackson has a deep understanding of human emotion, a keen eye, and a well-tuned ear. His debut novel, The Residue Years, published by Bloomsbury Press, is full of carefully wrought lines that give painful insight into the lives of main character Champ and his mother, Grace, as they fight their self-destructive impulses. Jackson’s novel presents us with a strong, sure voice that draws attention to class division in America that fuels the drug trade and keeps entire families locked in a cycle of institutional life.
Also like Joyce, Jackson recreates time and place with accuracy and style. His descriptions of 1990’s Portland bring to life a place that is not the hipster haven of coffee houses, indie music, and eco-friendliness. Rather, the Portland of The Residue Years is the other side of urban sprawl: the neighborhoods that are neglected, and the residents living continually on the edge of destruction, who sweat desperation and set their lives to the rhythm of the rain that nurtures depression as much as it does the forest of the Pacific Northwest.
Jackson’s characters are isolated in the middle of urban sprawl. Champ’s relationship has failed; he has no real prospects to enter the working world and be a legitimate provider for his daughter. Grace has been caught in the drug addict’s cycle of rehab and relapse most of her life. While Champ and Grace are two characters in a novel, they represent the disenfranchisement of America’s poor and working-class families. Jackson’s novel focuses upon black family, but the situation he describes happens in poor neighborhoods across the country, regardless of color. While Jackson includes specifics about the the experience of African-Americans, the heart of the novel is about divisions created by the combination of low employment and the easy money and escape that the drug trade seems to promise the desperate—The Residue Years presents a set of circumstances that could happen to anyone.
Jackson creates characters who are real and believable, and a family situation that is heartbreaking. Grace is newly out of rehab and struggling to maintain a straight life and her son, Champ, is following too closely in her footsteps in a last-ditch desperate plan to buy back the family’s house by selling crack. As the novel opens, Champ hopes to help his mother make order of her life once and for all, saying, “Whatever plans Mom has this time, grand or small, starry-eyed or dull, my plans will be under her plans holding them up.” He dreams of reuniting the family, including his younger brothers, in the house. Champ has the will and drive to make life better for them all, but lacks the tools to do so. Champ occupies the border between being a child who believes in the absolute goodness of a parent and becoming the parent to his mother.
Champ is a devoted son, torn between clear-eyed realism about the situation and childlike optimism that this time things will work and they will all break the cycle they keep trapping themselves in. And here is where Jackson’s story of addiction and family dysfunction is fresh: the characters don’t blame anyone but themselves for the missteps they take. Unlike other novels, and memoirs, such as The Basketball Diaries, Junky, or Trainspotting, in which characters at least temporarily glorify the experience, Jackson’s characters take no joy in the drugs. One never gets a sense that Grace enjoys being high or that she is chasing the euphoria.
Jackson disarms the reader with unexpected turns in the emotional content, which he starts in the prologue. Champ’s fantasy of his mother and daughter visiting him in prison is disrupted by the reality. “This place ain’t built for dreams,” Champ observes. Champ gains maturity by the novel’s end, and this line is his assessment of his life at present. He is no longer the kid who turns to drug dealing as a desperate attempt to restore order to the family by providing them with a home. The Champ who declares prison no place for dreams understands that the next step will take a lot of hard work. He still has a slim chance to make a future for himself and his family, but Champs knows that every single decision he makes from now on has to be the right one.
Grace is a survivor despite her “habit of choosing work-allergic roguish men” and uses her skill in reading people to get through life. She describes the gut instinct as the “first mind” and observes, “your first mind comes to you in seconds—or less. If you’re listening, it tells you how much you’ll like a person, if you can trust them, it tells you where to rank them; with your first mind you figure out how old, how smart, how smart, whether they keep a bank balance or specialize in bounced checks.” Grace may be able to describe “first mind” with precision, but she repeatedly fails to use the skill; she trusts the wrong people, stays quiet when she should advocate for herself, and speaks up when it would be better to go unnoticed. Champs seems to be better at applying the instinctual reading of people and situations, but he allows the love for his mother and the dream of family to leave him vulnerable.
Watching his younger brother play a basketball game, Champ shares KJ’s anxiety that their mother won’t show up. When she does arrive, Champ is relieved, but also saddened by the little things—her thin winter coat and the trouble she has climbing the bleacher stairs. As KJ scores and looks up to the stands for approval, Champ remembers his own childhood and wants his brother’s life to turn out differently from his own: “Better for him is what I want for him if better for him exist.”
The reader roots for mother and son as Champ asks, toward the novel’s end, “What now can we do for each other?” The prologue already tells us how the story ends—Champ will be behind bars. His mother’s visit and his continuing empathy for her shows what they can do for each other—provide support, understanding, and unconditional love.
Jackson deftly weaves the voices of Grace and Champ throughout the book, making each distinct. Grace tells her story with straightforward language and thoughtful meditations about the people around her. Champ’s portions of the novel are written in bursts of images and dialogue that mix the cutting and painful truth with humor. Here is where Jackson shines—his love of language buoys what could be a depressing story about the class divisions in America. Champ’s passages are simultaneously streetwise and literary. Jackson captures the music of the characters’ speech and delivers stylistic punches with his images as Champ and Grace describe the world around them. In Champ’s narrative, Jackson shows the toughness and vulnerability of a young man with the odds stacked against him. He also gives us the optimism to believe that Champ is wise enough to learn from his and his mother’s mistakes.
The story is heart-wrenching and Grace and Champ follow the expected trajectory of addiction, rehab, and prison, yet Jackson’s writing and observations about their lives are fresh. Jackson’s voice is distinct as he explores the ways that families can draw together to overcome challenges in an alienating world where the gap between the privileged and powerless is growing ever wider.
Garrett Riggs lives, writes, and teaches in Tallahassee, Florida, where he has a house full of kids and cats. He has published fiction and nonfiction in The Tampa Review, Cineaste, and The International Journal of Humanities.
Mitchell S. Jackson was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He holds a masters degree in Writing from Portland State and an MFA from New York University. He teaches writing at NYU, Medgar Evers College, and John Jay College. He also works as a journalist, writing about entertainment and sports for Vibe, The Source, and various others. His fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous literary journals, and he is a winner of the Hurston Wright Award for College Writers. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.