Award-Winning Novel Uses Comedy to Talk Dangers of Being Black in America

click to enlarge Jason Mott will read from his National Book Award-winning novel, Hell of a Book, at the High Low on Wednesday, June 29. - Dutton/Michael Becker
Dutton/Michael Becker
Jason Mott will read from his National Book Award-winning novel, Hell of a Book, at the High Low on Wednesday, June 29.

Not too far into Hell of a Book the main character, an unnamed Black author of a book of the same name gets sent by his publisher to a media trainer, Jack the Media Trainer. The mood of the interaction between them is set immediately by the trainer’s “torpedo” handshake, which the author thinks might “spear me through the backbone.”

Jack says the author doesn’t know what his book is about and, in fact, doesn’t know who he is as an author, much less how to present himself for optimal sales. Jack says this in many different ways, all of which are amusingly bizarre.

But perhaps the one that’s the most prescient is when Jack says, “Who you are defines the world in which you exist.”

The author’s agent interrupts the exchange with a video of a Black child who has been shot and killed. She demands that the two men look, really look. It’s a serious moment filled with real emotion. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.

All of Hell of a Book — which won the National Book Award in Fiction in November — blends humor with the heaviest of topics. Overtly, this is the story of an author on a book tour who sees a boy, The Kid, that no one else can see. It is also the story of a boy living in a rural town; it discusses how the world is different and unsafe if you’re Black and what that means for parents and children.

Hell of a Book is both a comedy and a drama,” says Jason Mott, the book’s actual, named author. “The heavy moments and the serious topics, that was the meal. That was the main meal I had to work on to make right. But then the comedy part, that was dessert, and I love dessert.”

Mott says the book and its genre mashup began in 2013. He’d recently finished promoting his book The Returned. It was a great experience but also “crazy,” and he began to think about writing about an author on a book tour, an idea his agent wasn’t too keen on initially.

Then, a few years later, Freddie Gray was arrested and killed by the Baltimore Police Department. Mott had a close friend living in Baltimore, and the two talked daily as riots broke out.

“I wanted to make sure he was OK,” Mott says. “It led to this three-week discussion about just being Black in America and our memories and childhoods and a lot of different things. And at the end of it all, I was really overwhelmed by it and getting depressed. And he said, ‘You know, you should write something about this.’”

Mott decided to combine a story of being Black in America with the ultimate book tour, wanting to challenge himself with the juxtaposition. As he worked, however, he says that the comedy became a way to cope with the inherent sadness of the subject matter.

There wasn’t really a moment where he was convinced it would all work; it was a book he wrote for himself in many ways. But positive feedback from his agent and early readers provided that assurance. It’s a book that dips heavily into Mott’s perspective and life experience. We see this in the unnamed author’s expressive imagination, which literally renders him unable to distinguish reality — an exaggeration of how Mott uses his own imagination as a writer. Another theme that recurs throughout the book is people’s ability to become “unseen” to stay safe.

“I was kind of the outsider kid, so I was bullied a lot, and I remember riding on the school bus and wishing that I could just disappear,” Mott says. The book also deals with the danger of drawing attention to oneself as a Black person, especially a Black man in the U.S., and how parents coach their children to blend in.

Mott included several scenes of “the Talk”: the discussions Black parents have with their children about a world that isn’t safe for them. One occurs as the narrator gorges on candy outside a Hershey’s factory talking to a boy no one else can see.

Becoming invisible is a double-edged sword, in multiple ways, Mott says.

“If you teach a person or even a group of people to just kind of assimilate and blend in and disappear, that’s exactly what they want to do,” he says. “They disappear, they lose their voice, they lose their identity, they lose their ability to be who they actually want to be and who they might grow into being. … That is the dangerous side of that invisibility.”

In Hell of a Book, Mott seeks to suss out that lost identity not only as a person but also as a writer and a Black writer. He talks about the pressures of being told by some not to write about being Black and by others to only write about being Black.

“All minority artists have to navigate that,” Mott says. “It is very exhausting, quite frankly.”

One thing that’s not exhausting is winning the largest book award in the U.S. Getting on the long list was exciting enough but receiving a phone call from Ruth Dickey informing him that he’d made the short list was even better. (Mott was driving and says, jokingly, that he almost crashed.)

Then he found himself at the actual National Book Award ceremony readying an apology tweet for his friends and family who’d taken time out of their lives to watch the live stream. Instead, they called his name.

“I was stunned,” Mott says. “Like, it took me days to actually begin to process it. And now, some seven months later, it’s starting to sink in.”

Catch Jason Mott at the High Low (3301 Washington Avenue, 314-533-0367) for a Left Bank Books event at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 29.

About The Author

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen is managing editor for the Riverfront Times. Send her your food, arts, film, theater, music and other culture happenings.
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.