Book Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

Blurb

(via goodreads)

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table and keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

Review

First of all, I absolutely love the idea behind this novella. The Ballad of Black Tom is a re-telling of H. P. Lovecraft’s racist short story “The Horror at Red Hook.” LaValle takes this base and casts a black man as the protagonist, thereby highlighting the horrors of racism in America in the 1920s — and how there hasn’t been much improvement since then. Apparently a couple of other people also think this is a great idea, because The Ballad of Black Tom won the 2016 Shirley Jackson award for best novella, and was a finalist for several other awards.

Lovecraft’s story has a white protagonist (of course), who is a police officer named Malone. In The Ballad of Black Tom, Malone is a secondary protagonist and is joined by another officer named Howard. I really love how the two cops are juxtaposed: Howard is a complete brute who disrespects and abuses Tommy Tester because he knows there won’t be any repercussions for him doing so, which makes Malone (who grants Tommy a modicum of courtesy) seem sensitive and enlightened in comparison. I wanted Tommy to have an ally in this story. I wanted to see white people treat Tommy with the dignity he deserved. But Malone is no better than Howard; he doesn’t stand up or speak out against the horrific brutality that black people endure in this story — in fact, he sees “Negroes” as inferior, just like 99% of other white people in the 1920s.

This novella packs one heck of a punch for a book with less than 155 pages. There is so much fury in it; reading it was like a slap in the face, especially Black Tom’s parting message to Malone.

However, there is a gaping plot hole in this book: where and how did Tommy Tester find the occult tome he delivers to the sorceress? How does he understand its secrets well enough to guard against the sorceress ever actually using the tome? His delivering of this book kickstarts the plot, and nothing about it is ever really explained. I wish it was! I can understand that this might have been omitted for the sake of length, and maybe one day LaValle will write a prequel novella about Tommy learning his hustle and unraveling the secrets of the occult that will explain everything — but for now, I’m left in the dark and am not particularly happy about it.

There is also a bit of eye-related gore towards the end of the novella. I don’t consider this to be positive or negative and didn’t factor it into how I rated The Ballad of Black Tom, but as a person who doesn’t like gore I think readers should be aware of this before walking into the story.

Overall, however, The Ballad of Black Tom is an enthralling read that grabs your attention and holds it in a vise grip until the end of the story. You can really feel the rage that LaValle poured into this book, and the artfulness with which Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia were upended and crafted into a commentary on the evils of those very things. If you want your horror with a generous helping of social critique, then The Ballad of Black Tom is the book for you.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


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