” … you trudge home wary the phone will sit mute a day, a week, a month, a life, that the world is scheming against poor unemployed you; those days you feel trapped pn the wrong side of faith until it dawns on you that it could be worse, much, much worse, and that comfort stirs you out of bed the nest daybreak. ” (Grace, p.47)
The Residue Years is a difficult book on terms of both story and writing style. The story of a broken family in cycles of plight and poverty is just poignant. The writing has a spoken-word cadence that makes the book somewhat hard going at first.
Told in chapters that alternate between Champ and Grace, this debut novel describes a black family in Portland, Oregon, trying very hard to remain a family. Grace is just out of rehab, hoping to stay clean and get her kids back. Her eldest, Champ, is in college and living with a girlfriend who later becomes pregnant. Champ’s younger brothers live with their father and have begun to distance themselves from Grace. The father also files permanent custody of the boys at court.
My word, a nickname’s and a christening, meaning you got a shot, meaning they think you can go, which is one chance more than most of us, so no wonder the chosen are all there is to speak of. No wonder when, for most, hoop’s about our only shot to be better and bigger than the rest, to secure a life that counts. (Champ, p.104)
But in the scope of this book, Champ’s idea to secure a better life is to buy back the only home they have ever lived in together. Despite being an intelligent student with good grades, he has to sling crack to support his family—something he picks up when Grace disappeared days on end with the welfare checks back in high school. It pays the bills and feeds the mouths. His ambitious goal to a house leads him on a path that is foreshadowed in the prologue. For Grace she wants to get a legitimate job, steers clear of bad influences, and redeems herself as a mother. But she is also bogged down by court fees and fines—all on a fastfood worker’s wages. There’s no way up and no way out, just constant setbacks. The story is as moving as it is unbearable.
The Residue Years is generous with the characters’ short-comings and failures. Sometimes they are so well-drawn that one feels Jackson has sacrificed the story for these details—because reading can be stagnant. The book follows a family’s journey toward a home that is just always beyond grasp no matter how hard mother and son reach. It’s easy to suggest the book is about race since it revolves around a black family yet it is a very hard look at poverty and how it constricts people from achieving their goals. It’s the quintessence of nickel-and-dime life.
342 pp. Bloomsbury. Hardcover. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]