Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99/$26, 272 pages
Back in the summer of 2003, a young Jesmyn Ward was living in rural Mississippi and hanging out at her sister’s apartment. Times were tough, as they often are for working-class black Americans along the Gulf Coast, but the mood that evening was mellow. Old friends sucked crawfish and knocked back beers. One of them, a factory worker named Demond, learnt Ward was writing a novel about their neighbourhood. “You should write about my life,” he said, laughing.
In her memoir Men We Reaped, Ward recalls a surge of sadness, a sudden realisation that the male characters in her manuscript “weren’t as raw as they could be, weren’t real”. The reason, she suggests, is because she loved them too much: “I protected them from death, from drug addiction, from needlessly harsh sentences in jail for doing stupid, juvenile things like stealing four-wheel ATVs.” Essentially, she protected them from the fates that befell many of the teenagers with whom she had grown up.
Men We Reaped is a group obituary of five of them. One was her cousin, another was her brother. The official causes are suicide, a murder, an overdose, a railway accident, a drunk driver. But there are deeper villains: the town where she grew up, DeLisle, Mississippi, which she describes as a place of “darkness and grief”. There’s also America itself, which treated African slaves as not-quite humans, as expendable labour. (One of the epigraphs, from abolitionist Harriet Tubman, not only gives the book its title but implies this deeper history.)
Ward might have been the one that got away from this toxic kingdom. She was educated at an Episcopalian private school, her tuition sponsored by some wealthy families for whom her mother worked as a maid. Later she attended Stanford University. Yet DeLisle is a melody she can’t ever forget. The headlines may depict it as a murder capital but she hears grace notes: old folk gathering at baseball fields; children riding on the backs of pick-up trucks; families bringing nylon and canvas folding chairs to sit in after they’ve polished the headstones of their loved ones’ graves.
Nowhere is Ward’s radiant tenderness as evident as in her portrait of her father. It would have been easy to damn him as a deadbeat dad or as a clueless chump. He was vain, cheated on his wife repeatedly, bought a pit bull that ended up nearly savaging the young Ward to death, and set up a singularly unsuccessful kung fu school, most of whose students were his own children.
Yet this is also someone who was set to go to art school but chose, instead, to work at gas stations to support his mother and seven siblings. And this is someone who rode around DeLisle on a motorcycle with his children clinging to his back, Prince’s “Purple Rain” blasting into their headphones from the tape recorder strapped to his waist. “He was trying to tell me something,” Ward reflects. “Something like I am a man, I am young and handsome and alive, and I want to be free.”
Ward’s background as a novelist serves her well in these vignettes. Her prose is poised, unshowy, mostly in control of the social agonies it illuminates. Occasionally, as when she talks about “gendered differences”, or drops in a hurried reference to “Reagan’s policies in the eighties”, she strains for a more explicitly political register that doesn’t suit her talent. A kind-of postscript in which she details rates of black poverty and incarceration in Mississippi is also superfluous.
Still, there are truths in Men We Reaped that no amount of sociological reports or thundering op-ed columns could reveal. Its heroes – the people its author not only loves but has learnt to write about with sad-eyed rigour – are America’s orphans, the collateral damage of the postindustrial economy. They toil away, guarding buildings, washing dishes, sometimes selling drugs. They toil away and, like Ward’s mother, begin “to forget the meaning of possibility, the tender heat of romance, the lure of the vistas of the world”. Men We Reaped is an incredibly sad book, but it is also an acute and often beautiful one.
Jesmyn Ward will be talking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Sunday 23 March (oxfordliteraryfestival.org)