A nameless Black author on a cross-country book tour is struggling under the weight of his notoriety and the expectations that society is placing on him. His book, which is never described, is simultaneously meant to capture the experience of being Black in America while also being criticized by people for not representing Black people enough. In alternating chapters, we follow this author as well as a young boy with impossibly dark skin as he desperately tries to learn how to become invisible. As the stories progress, the two characters overlap and blend together in ways that will have you questioning reality.
This is a thought-provoking, unconventional novel that plays around in style. I thought it was playful and engaging while also being a moving and reflective look at what it means to be Black in America.
The chapters alternate between the nameless author and “The Kid” a young boy who is called Soot by his peers for his dark skin. The chapters following the author are a mix of moving and absurd. We see him reflect on the loss of both his father and mother, but we also see him on a random first date with Kelly, a funeral director and in strange conversation with Nicolas Cage who shows up to one of his book signings. The author admits to having an active imagination, often being unable to tell what is real and what is imaginary, so we also question reality as we follow his perspective. For the most part, I really enjoyed the author’s perspective. I thought these passages were well balanced and thoughtful. I did find some of the chapters to lag a little, but not to the point where I was pulled out of the story.
My favorite passages, though, were following Soot. The story opens with him believing that he has turned himself invisible as he sits in a room with his parents, and he constantly works to become invisible in the chapters following. In the face of tragedy, Soot does manage to finally disappear but it is not enough to save him from a world that doesn’t want to see him survive. As his story begins converging with the author’s, we question whether The Kid is a projection of the author himself, or a stand-in for Black children in America. Though these were hard chapters, I loved following Soot’s story and reflecting on the world that made and destroyed him.
Hell of a Book was the 2021 National Book Award Winner and I can see why. It’s lyrical and complex, dramatic and moving, and I am still thinking of the story long after I put the book down. I highly recommend picking this one up!
If you’ve read Hell of a Book, be sure to let me know what you think!
CW: racism, police brutality, emetophobia, alcohol, murder, cancer