- The Secret Hero
Black and ugly as everhowever …—Notorious B. I. G.
I've been Victor LaValle's editor for two books (with a third in progress), but I first encountered him as a reader and, soon after, a fan of his first book, the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, which was published in 1999. That same year, I worked as editor with the writer Kevin Powell on an anthology of what he dubbed "the new black literature" and we both agreed that Victor should be represented. The anthology was anchored by a number of excellent writers who were already making names for themselves, including Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Paul Beatty, along with a slew of relative unknowns. Victor was part of the slew. Each writer in the anthology wrote their own biographical statement, and given the spirit of the time, almost all of them wrote hard-edged, politically ripe assertions of identity (black, bi-racial, Latino, Muslim, Southern, Northern, Midwestern, etc.), five-sentence memoirs steeped in what reads like almost unseemly self-love in retrospect. Victor's biographical statement was very different from the rest: he submitted as his bio a two-paragraph short-short story about a day in his childhood when he tricked a young girl into picking up a lump of dog shit and delivering it to her mother. When the mother saw the girl standing their with the dog shit in her hand, she "yelled baldly like she didn't recognize her daughter. Shut the door from her girl even as Stavres stood quietly, bearing a gift. And this is why I write. Because it's true I'm the boy laughing in the street, but you're the mother who shut the door. And I love ugly, so I love you" (Powell 462).
And I loved Victor. At a time when a lot of young black and immigrant writers were telling stories that, even when harrowing or cautionary, were still mostly about discovering and declaring the uncelebrated beauty in their experiences, Victor was on a different mission: to unearth and embrace the ugly. The work we included in the anthology was "Slave" (which features one of Victor's notoriously pungent first sentences: "Rob eats pussy like a champ"), but my personal favorite story from Slapboxing was "Getting Ugly," a slight, funny story whose depths are slowly revealed. "Getting Ugly" is also an ur-text of Victor's eventual body of work, featuring elements that would thread through everything he's written since: the narrator is, by his own account, ugly. The characters are black, but are perhaps even more strongly defined by class: they're working class, at best, but not particularly vexed about pursuing wealth—they're reading Marine recruitment pamphlets, looking for community college credits and the kinds of jobs where you never [End Page 974] get laid off, the outer-borough American Dream. The portrayal of the characters in the story is as tactile as it is verbal and visual—in Victor's books you never lose track of the bodies of his characters, always rubbing, stroking, patting, and holding each other and the objects around them, as if touch were a truer medium through which to apprehend and anchor yourself to the world than language and appearances. And the dialogue is a rich universe of its own. The story is about two young people flirting and maybe falling in love, but their romance isn't the kind you'd find in a Victorian novel; the banter between them seems casual and dirty and comic but is clearly the work of experts: line-for-line their dialogue is as carefully calibrated in word and rhythm as a sonnet—and as powerful in its effect. "Slapboxing" is a great metaphor for what Victor's prose does in this story and every other: it bats readers around in comic combat, keeps them on their toes (is this real or a game?), playfully moves them this way and that, and then, surprise, a sudden sting that stays with you. And what drives "Getting Ugly" forward—the story barely has any plot at all—is Victor's great theme: the tension...