The Residue Years
By Mitchell S. Jackson
Bloomsbury Press, 2013
Set in NE Portland, Oregon in the 1990s, The Residue Years tells the story of Shawn Thomas (“Champ”), a college student, and his mother Grace, a recovering crack addict. Just out of rehab, Grace is trying to rebuild her life, and get custody of her youngest sons, Canaan and KJ, Shawn’s half-brothers. Shawn is in his senior year of college, doing well in school, while making a living dealing drugs. Told in alternating chapters the book tells the story of Grace’s attempt to stay clean and Shawn’s dream to reunite his family.
Mitchell’s writing is poetic and original, and the story is deeply anthropological, making me feel like I was stepping back in time with Champ and Grace to a period when NE Portland was overrun with crack houses, and kids like Champ learned on live on his own as his mom disappeared on drug binges and visits to rehab. I felt very close to Grace who strives to be a good mother, despite her addiction, and attempts to stay clean in a world where her best friends are addicts. Meanwhile Champ struggles between two identities: the drug dealer with amble access to girls and sex and the college student with his live-in girlfriend and his desire to go to grad school. There is a sense of doom for both Grace and Champ throughout the entire book, as if they are set up to never escape the drugs in their city, no matter what street they turn down. This is a powerful and gripping story, which now reads like historical fiction, given how much Portland has changed in the past 20 years.
Jackson grew up in Portland and now lives in Brooklyn. This book was nominated for numerous awards when it came out in 2013.