I could sum up Hell of a Book by Jason Mott, “a Jenna Bush Hager ‘Read With Jenna’ Book Club pick, Carnegie Medals For Excellence in Fiction Longlist selection, a 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize Longlist selection, a Joyce Carol Oates Prize Longlist selection, the 2021 Sir Walter Raleigh Prize for Fiction winner, and the winner of the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction,” simply by saying it’s a hell of a book. Truth in advertising. On the title page, the title is given as Hell of a Book: or The Altogether Factual, Wholly Bona Fide Story of a Big Dreams, Hard Luck, American-Made Mad Kid. That, too, sums up the book and, it seems, the author as well.
Still, the book needs more description, so I’ll give you the simple version: The novel concerns a thirty-eight-year-old unnamed author referred to only as _____. He has a condition—his imagination is alive and well and overactive. And _____, as did Mott, left the tiny rural town of Bolton, NC, and became a bestselling author. The novel also concerns a young boy, who is so dark-skinned that the bully on the school bus calls him Soot. “Black as shut eyes. Black as starless nights. Black as stovepipe soot.” And then there’s The Kid, who appears to _____ on his book tour of, yes, Hell of a Book, and can be regarded as the moral voice, the imaginary friend, the byproduct of _____’s life experiences as a Black man.
Hell of a Book, however, is complex and searing beneath _____’s humor and occasional playfulness. The story is about many things including—but certainly not limited to—Black invisibility, Black Lives Matter, racism, Black shooting deaths, mass shootings, guns, police violence, and the immediate shock and concern over a shooting that evaporate into an uneasy normal; the skewed, whitewashed publishing industry; cable news; societal pressures, the freedom to be who you are vs. the conformity to be who they say you should be; the obvious and the not-so-obvious; platitudes and the illusion of being safe and sound; old B/W movies with White characters exchanging rapid-fire dialogue and Nic Cage; pain, fear, and death; storytelling and living life differently with a little magic; going home and the resistance of going home; sadness under anger; and so much more that only can be discovered by reading this book.
_____ is chased by ghosts from his past, his present, his future, and all of this is packed into 321 pages of energy and wonder. Mott’s writing will surprise and challenge, and you’ll be all the better for it. Pick up the book. Read it. Let it settle into your heart, your bones, and your mind. It’s a story that will do more than linger. It will jab at your conscience when you least expect it.
Hell of a Book published on June 29, 2021. Jason Mott resides in North Carolina. You can learn more about him on his web site.