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October 9th, 2013 REBECCA JACOBSON | Books
 

Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped

A rotten story, told brilliantly.

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From the beginning of Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $26), Jesmyn Ward makes clear her memoir isn’t going to be an easy ride. By telling her story, she hopes, “I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.”

It is indeed a rotten fucking story. Ward grew up poor and black in rural Mississippi, and she lost, over the course of four years, five young men she knew well. The good news, at least for readers, is that Ward tells a rotten fucking story fucking brilliantly. Her prose is conversational and unadorned. It’s deceptively simple, until a moment of wrenching tragedy—or, surprisingly often, one of astounding beauty—arrives with dangerous propulsion, knocking you off the footing that had seemed so secure.

“Men’s bodies litter my family history,” writes Ward, who won the 2011 National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones. Over the course of Men We Reaped, we meet five such young men. Felled by suicide, drugs or accidents, they tell in microcosm a larger tale of racism, economic hardship, violence and addiction. But Ward’s story is primarily a personal one, and she keeps her account focused on immediate details and intimate memories—we can feel the sticky, thick heat of her southern Mississippi hometown, where she returned from Stanford during summers to swig Everclear, smoke weed and pass out on cousins’ couches. (Ward was lucky: Her mother, a housekeeper, had a client who helped enroll her in private school.)

Ward recounts the deaths in reverse chronological order, which means her younger brother Joshua is the last in the book to die. Each of these five vignettes is cut with an autobiographical chapter that moves forward in time. “My ghosts were once people,” she writes, but for the reader, things seem to travel in the reverse direction—those we’ve gotten to know will soon disappear. There’s a vicious sense of anticipation and constant tension between the brevity of life and the permanence of death. Throughout, Ward grounds her story with sparse poetry about each of the men who died—her brother Joshua was “scrappy with brawn and foolish hope,” her cousin C.J. had cheekbones like peach pits—and a clear affection for the troubled place where she grew up. Ward is “perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me,” and by the end of Men We Reaped, we’ve been choked as well.


GO: Jesmyn Ward appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Friday, Oct. 11. 7:30 pm. Free.

 
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