Sometimes I feel like fiction that falls somewhere between short stories and a novel is my favourite kind of writing. This sort of book probably occurs for practical reasons when the author initially started writing short stories and then groups them together with some connecting characters (since novels traditionally sell better than collections of short stories.) But I think this form allows an opportunity for the author to explore many different perspectives or themes using different narrative styles and points of view. The effect can be really powerful in how it shows a multifaceted view of a story. Some examples of books like this are “Send Me” by Patrick Ryan, “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout, “All That Man Is” by David Szalay, “Vertigo” by Joanna Walsh, “Sour Heart” by Jenny Zhang and “The Shore” by Sara Taylor. Adding to this style of storytelling is the debut book by JM Holmes “How Are You Going to Save Yourself?” which follows the stories of four black men living in Rhode Island as they progress through the tricky stages of young adulthood.
Holmes often uses dialogue with great precision to evoke character and create dramatic tension in different stages of these men’s lives. The book begins with a conversation between friends Gio, Dub, Rye and Rolls as they share stories about sex and relationships with white girls. Discussions about sex as power play, economic disparity and institutionalised racism feature throughout the book making for some edgy exchanges that reveal a deeper kind of truth. Holmes is unflinchingly honest in presenting the boys’ vulnerability such as a scene where a black man feels self-conscious about being naked in front of a white woman “I told myself I wasn’t on an auction block in front of her.” But some of the most unsettling stories focus more on the perspective of female teenagers or young women that these boys are dating. He sharply portrays egregious instances of misogyny and violence towards women such as when a girl is coerced into having sex with multiple boys: “He stared Tayla straight in the eye and she felt her body tense. They were all focused on her, but not really her, some imagined girl. Their eyes were buried in her body.” These descriptions of sex strikingly show the interplay between the gaze and the imagination, as well as how prejudice and fear can be deeply internalised. The stories expose how girls and women are unfortunately often the recipients of abuse because of these issues and the power dynamics involved. They also describe how when people are totally stripped down (both physically and mentally) unconscious concerns about skin colour suddenly fill the minds of the parties involved.
Gio’s father Lonnie is a former footballer whose star has faded. References to his complicated life are threaded throughout several of the stories so that he is like a mythological figure in the boys’ minds, but I found it especially powerful when it’s described how the sport had a long-lasting physical impact upon him: “His body was riddled with scars thick as butter knives.” Equally, changes to the boys’ bodies as they work in various different jobs are presented in a striking way such as when Rye becomes a fireman. Others pursue more cerebral jobs such as teaching or abstract art. Their choices take them upon divergent paths and it’s poignant how they grow apart in different ways while still maintaining a common bond. In this way the book functions as a coming of age tale, but it’s so creatively presented as these boys variously make different compromises and struggle to figure out where they fit in society.