LaValle--whose second novel, Big Machine, just won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel this past weekend at Readercon--writes like a dream, and each story in Slapboxing with Jesus is a mini-masterpiece. His prose is stylish, smooth and spare, relying on a maestro's eye for detail, character and voice to fully immerse the reader in his well-drawn worlds, rather than lengthy word counts.
The collection is divided into two parts. The first, "the autobiography of New York today (in five parts)," is comprised of character-driven shorts that so deeply engross the reader in the world they populate--the outer boroughs, mostly--that you can practically smell the subway cars and apartment building stairwells. The heroes of these slice-of-life stories can hardly be called heroes, they're often selfish, ignorant, prejudiced, irresponsible, players. In other words, real. They're not aspirational, they're true to who they are, without apology, and are far more compelling for it. By the time you finish these first five stories, you'll feel like you've been hanging out with the wrong crowd, the kind of people your mom warned you to stay away from, but LaValle's writing is so strong, so confident, that you will have felt you absolutely belonged with them.
The second part is a series of interconnected stories, called "one boy's beginnings," that center around the tween to mid-teen years of one Anthony J-- in 1980s Queens. This could be the same Anthony James of The Ecstatic--his family is identical--but there are differences too. In The Ecstatic Anthony is a 350-pound paranoid schizophrenic, while here he's a pretty normal kid just trying to get by in a rough neighborhood--a friend loses an eye to bike thieves; Anthony gets beat up regularly by a school bully who wants him to ghostwrite love notes for him so he can get laid--while living with his single mother, a budding inventor, and Ugandan grandmother, who barely speaks English. Anthony's father, a white cop from Connecticut, abandoned the family long ago, but returns in the heartrending story "pops" to show that some father-son rifts just can't be healed, at least not that easily. These may be coming-of-age tales, but they're not safe or charming ones. In "class trip," fifteen-year-old Anthony is dragged by his friends to a hooker in a seedy part of town, but the experience is far from a 1980s jiggle-and-giggle movie. It's downright harrowing.
It's hard to know how much, if any, of these stories is autobiographical. LaValle certainly writes with the conviction of someone who lived through these moments. But of course, that's not what really matters. What matters is how LaValle makes the reader live through these moments, and he does so with style, certainty and aplomb.
I can't recommend his books enough.