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.
The Guardian recently profiled a collection of authors who are publishing UK debuts in 2015. The list includes Jessica Cornwell, the granddaughter of John le Carre, whose The Serpent Papers is a literary thriller about a rare book expert; and Laura Barnett, who wrote a book that captures the lives of two people in three parallel narratives called The Versions of Us. It also features a book I just started reading, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, about an 80-year woman from rural Canada who walks 2,000 miles to see the ocean for the first time in her life.
The article provides background on eight authors, and their works, and then blurbs a handful more. It is nice way to read about some new and interesting authors, though the books might not publish in the US as soon as they do in the UK.
Also in the UK, the Costa Awards were announced and Emma Healey won the Costa First Novel Award for her book Elizabeth is Missing. It is a story about an older woman with dementia who decides to search for her missing best friend. The book has been described as an engaging psychological mystery.
In the US, Mitchell S. Jackson won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for his debut novel, The Residue Years. I have a copy of this book on my shelf and am looking forward to reading it. It has been noted for its unique narrative style (non-linear and with unconventional grammar and punctuation). Set in the 90s in Portland, OR, it tells the story of a young African-American man and his mother and how they struggle to make lives for themselves in a world where crack cocaine dominates their neighborhood.
So many intriguing books to read and never enough time to read them all! Unless those of us on the east coast get snowed in later tonight 😉