The Residue Years
By Mitchell S. Jackson. Bloomsbury, 346 pp, hardcover
Portland-born writer Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years plays a pretty smooth game. It draws you in with its easy, compelling prose, and then once you’re comfortable, it devastates you. But the heartache’s worth it: this is an ambitious book that tackles some difficult questions (Are we really free? being the biggest one) without offering too-easy answers.
Largely autobiographical, The Residue Years takes place on the dilapidated, drug-strewn fringes of 1990s Portland (“the P”), a world away from the privileged quirks of Portlandia. Our narrators are a bright and articulate college student, Champ, and his mother, Grace, two members of a black family struggling to get ahead in one of America’s whitest cities. In many ways, this is a classic tragedy. From its stage-setting prologue, we already know how the story ends: with Champ in jail. How he got there is something it takes another 300 pages to reveal.
Both Champ and Grace pack some first-rate tragic flaws. Champ is top-level ambitious: “I refuse to be one of these fools anonymous everywhere but inside their head”, he tells his girlfriend, whose love he flagrantly rebuffs by sleeping all over town. Grace’s flaw is her freshly kicked drug addiction. Indeed, both of them share a pretty intimate relationship with crack; Champ deals it, trying to sock away enough cash to buy the family’s old home, while Grace tries her hardest not to cave to its familiar lure. You can see where this is going, and it’s not pretty. The way the characters are set up, choice seems more like a concept than a reality.
Mitchell’s confidence and mellifluous slang make The Residue Years likely to pop up on Amazon as a Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought tip for any Junot Díaz novel. More importantly, he poignantly captures a reality rarely given such a sympathetic portrait: in this case, the helpless cycle of addiction and poverty that’s ever-so-much-more complicated than any war-on-drugs pulpiteering would have you believe. It’s the sort of novel that makes you throw up your hands at the world’s cruelty: a triumph for Mitchell, because he’s written characters it’s easy to care about—perhaps partially because, after all, they’re real.