StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Review of Toni Morrison’s A MERCY

Posted in Books by streetlegalplay on November 3, 2008

By Kyle Thomas Smith

This is my review of Toni Morrison’s new book A Mercy.

It will appear this week in Edge Magazine.

In 1990, three years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison said in an interview with Bill Moyers: “I rewrite and rewrite to make the books look like they were written in a matter of hours.”

That’s one of the things I love most about Morrison whom I hail as one of the world’s greatest living authors. In interviews, she might appear to be all intellect, but her greatest works—Sula, Song of Solomon, Jazz, Beloved—are marked by simple, immediate prose that builds up to a burning tower of mythology, violence, calamity, deprivation and her characters’ tempestuous wills to survive. Over the course of her 38 years as a novelist, Toni Morrison has singlehandedly established a universe in which the black experience stands with one foot on the skids of America and the other in the anarchy of an ancient Greek tragedy. When I am hungry for inspiration, I often devour the fierce, possessive passages in Morrison’s books and find my imagination sated while my body quivers from aftershock.

Unfortunately, I did not experience such rapture upon reading her hotly anticipated new novel, A Mercy. When I first picked up the slim 169-page book, I rustled my backside into the couch, preparing for the ride of my life, but soon found myself turning over for a nap. Although lush and erudite, the narration runs like molasses. Pulling my attention back to the storyline was like wrestling the Good Year Blimp back to the ground with a lasso. Thinking that I might just have been having an off day, I gave the book another try the next day…and the next…and the next…and the following week. For the first time in my experience of Morrison, my attention consistently drifted away from the page and into the stratosphere. Oh, how I yearned for the reprieve of her past perfection! Alas, it did not come. No doubt Morrison deserves an A+ for effort and concept on A Mercy, but it’d take round after round of rewrites to give this book the momentum of her masterworks.

Like her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, Morrison’s A Mercy tackles the subject of American slavery. Where Beloved studied the catastrophic effects of slavery in the years before and after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, A Mercy is set in the 17th Century when slavery first took root in the Dutch, Scandinavian and English colonies on America’s eastern seaboard. In an August 2008 interview, Morrison told New York magazine that she “wanted to get to a place before slavery was equated with race. Whether [slaves] were black or white was less important than what [slave-masters] owned and what their power was.” Where Morrison’s prior works explored societies of people marginalized on account of their race, A Mercy is more of a historical tale meant to underscore Morrison’s scholarly contention that “there is no civilization that did not rest on unpaid labor—not Athens, not Russia, not England, no one.”

Yet the novel’s young slave Florens subsists under conditions that are idyllic compared to the unrelenting treachery in Seth’s life in Beloved. The book begins with Jacob Vaark, a Dutch trader, travelling on horseback through the wilds of Virginia to Maryland to settle a debt that a Portuguese landowner, Senhor D’Ortega, is incapable of paying. Vaark compromises by accepting D’Ortega’s offer to give him one of his slaves. A slave named minha mae begs Vaark to choose her own nine-year-old daughter Florens. Vaark and D’Ortega agree to the arrangement while Florens crumbles inside at her mother’s betrayal. However, Vaark turns out to be a kind, compassionate master who owns acres of forested land in a Dutch-inhabited colony. He has two indentured servants and a Native American worker named Lina, who gloms on to Florens, conferring on her the love she had for the tribe she lost to a smallpox epidemic. Morrison creates a setting where black, white and red seem to all be treated the same.

But when Jacob Vaark dies, his wife Rebekka goes mad with grief. Rebekka had escaped religious persecution in England and hoped to find happiness by marrying Vaark in the New World. Only, disease was so rampant and conditions were so untested that Rebekka ended up losing child after child on its soil. Vaark’s death proves enough to set Rebekka over the edge. She begins to lose faith in a personal God and exacts the role of plantation termagant: “The pleasure of upbraiding an incompetent servant outweighed any satisfaction of a chore well done and the housewife raged happily at every unswept corner, poorly made fire, imperfectly scrubbed pot, carelessly weeded garden row and badly plucked bird.” Moreover, the novel comes equipped with Sorrow, an orphan servant girl who is the repository for all the foreboding that brews in the back of all minds on the Vaark estate. Like Little Father Time in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Sorrow is the embodiment of a doom foretold in the days after Vaark’s death and in the formation of a nation where slavery will soon flourish in the uttermost cruelty. Yet having known life when Vaark, whom Florens refers to as Sir, was still alive, Florens comes to discover that her mother’s abandonment was, in fact, a mercy.

In A Mercy, Morrison tells the stories of more than half a dozen major characters from their own individual points of view. Yet, right up to the last page of the novel, the characters remain surprisingly underdeveloped. Where Morrison once packed her books with allegories that gave ample context to her characters and their strife, A Mercy has a prosaic monotony where precious little folklore and witchcraft lurk. Refreshing as it is that Morrison has presented an historical milieu in which different races coexist without racism—notably, at a time when so many Americans are eagerly waiting to elect Barack Obama—the narrative lacks the poignancy and piquancy that has put her on the pantheon of modern literature. Never did I expect that I would end up writing such criticisms of the beloved Toni Morrison. But what kind of reviewer would I be if I showed A Mercy too much mercy?

85A Log: Ellen Page, Fox News, SLC Punk!, Barack Obama

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 10, 2008

So, I told myself I wanted to keep a blog of my incremental progress on 85A. I have a feeling, though, that I’d just keep keying in, “It’s coming along.” Don’t know how much more I can say about the book without handing out plot-spoilers.

I will tell you that I want Seamus to be the anti-Juno. Now, he’s smart in his own right-brain sort of way. His vocabulary is a little more advanced than your average 15-year-old’s. He’s even perceptive and precocious. But he’s naive and bewildered by the world around him, unlike in-crowd teenybopper Juno, who talks and acts like she’s been around more blocks than most merchant marines.

Ellen Page - Hard Candy

Ellen Page - Hard Candy

(I’m still working out my grudge against Ellen Page in therapy. I first saw her when Hard Candy came out in theaters in 2005. Her Little Miss Smarty-Pants routine was so obnoxious, I walked out of the Angelika halfway through the movie. Then I decided that wasn’t very Buddhist of me, so I rented it on DVD, hoping I wouldn’t hate her so much on that go-round. Nope! Didn’t work that time either. Kept wanting her to get killed. Juno was even worse. If you ever want to torture me to death, tie me to a chair, just like she did with that guy in Hard Candy, and put a bunch of teenage girls in front of me who talk just like her. Suffice it to say, my beautiful Seamus will NOT talk like Ellen Page.)

Stevo - SLC Punk

Stevo - SLC Punk

But Seamus is a character whom Stevo in SLC Punk! would call a poseur and might even try beating up. See, Seamus isn’t into punk because he loves hard-core. He’s into it because he’s angry and dejected and it’s one of the closest things to English culture his green little anglophile mind can conceive. Stevo has no love for limies or any American who acts like them.

Set in January 1989, two days after the inauguration of George Herbert Walker Bush, Seamus rails against Reagan, Bush and America in ways that will keep me (his creator) out of the White House for life. Good! I don’t want the job. And I give Obama all the credit in the world for standing up under all this heat. There’s no inhumanity too base for Fox News and its proponents to commit. (After all the lies and deceits of the past 8 years, does anyone still regard them as a credible news source?) I was punching holes in my office walls after I saw the video (see above) that sent around yesterday about how Fox is treating Michelle. Then I had to ask myself, “Are you surprised?”

Rather than ruining my own knuckles and health over the racist, fear-mongering trash Fox’s been talking since its inception, I now choose to instead put my hands together and bow to Obama like I do to my statue of the Buddha. He has been an aikido master throughout his whole campaign, letting his opponents’ every jab ram straight into the emptiness from whence it came. I wish I had that much cool. Some of my best moments each day are when I click on to RealClearPolitics and find that Barack is still ahead in the polls.

Last night over pizza at Two Boots, Julius told me, “I’d hate to say it, but, if Barack does become the next president, I don’t think it’ll be so much because he won the election but because McCain lost the election.” I knew what he meant. If the Bush administration hadn’t been such a dismal, sociopathic failure, would the country that reelected a war criminal in 2004 elect a black humanitarian in 2008? Methinks the answer would be, no. But, either way, the important thing is that he does become our next president. He will do so much to repair our international relations, race relations, our collapsing economy, and other domestic discords.

Is Obama perfect? No. I’m still pissed that he capitulated with the rest of the democrats on warrantless wiretapping. (That was the last capitulation I would stand from those side-with-and-then-blame-Bush wimps. I withdrew my Democrat status at that moment and became an independent.) Even though Barack is in favor of civil unions and gay rights, he maintains that, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” (He declared that like it was law and did not elaborate.) To which I respond, “Not when it’s a gay marriage.” Why does he feel the need to defend these benighted and exclusionary definitions? All that aside, he’s an amazing man, an amazing writer, an amazing speaker, and I’m sure he’ll prove to be an amazing president. If we elect Barack, for the first time in his life, Seamus would be proud of his country. (I mean, if he weren’t a fictional character, that is.)

Another thing I fear about 85A is that readers might take Seamus’ statements about race the wrong way. He wants racial unity and racial harmony with all his soul, but he comes from a racist home and a racist neighborhood in a segregated city and, at 15, he has yet to unlearn a lot of his preconceptions about immigrants, gays and non-whites. However, his best friend Tressa – a black teen prodigy and theater artist – does a lot to help him dismantle that mentality and see more things than he’d ever see without her.

So, anyway, 85A is coming along and, I’m happy to report, so is Barack.

Progress Report: 85A

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 9, 2008

Lord knows I have my days, but, on balance, I could not be more thrilled with how my novel, 85A, is shaping up. It’s already crossed its 174th page and there is way more to go.

The Patron Saint of 85A

Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A

Set in a racially stratified Late Eighties Chicago, 85A centers on the life and consciousness of a foul-mouthed, Johnny Rotten-obsessed, 15-year-old boy named Seamus O’Grady. Despite his rough edges, Seamus is actually a sensitive artist trying desperately to come to terms with his sexuality, spirituality, and creativity amid the authoritarianism, racism and homophobia of his household, school, neighborhood and city. At the same time, he has big dreams to live in London as a writer or actor or maybe as a psychologist like his mentor Dr. Strykeroth (with whom he has a more-than-questionable relationship).

This day-in-the-life, stream-of-consciousness narrative tracks Seamus’ inner life and outer struggle as he takes the 85A bus to the Chicago L, which brings him to the high-performing Catholic school that is itching to kick him out. Will the heads of the school expel him? And what would he do if they did? These are but two of the besetting questions facing Seamus. My largest ambition for this work is to plumb the depths of Seamus’ character while giving readers a vivid snapshot of life in 1980s Chicago.

Given Seamus’ emulation of Johnny Rotten, my fear is that this book would be too vulgar for a publisher of fiction and/or Young Adult fiction, but…

editor extraordinaire

Shell Fischer - Writer/Editor extraordinaire

Shell Fischer will be helping me edit the manuscript once I manage to heft it on to her desk. I couldn’t think of a better ‘nother-set-of-eyes than Shell. She is a freelance writer and editor here in Brooklyn and the author of a saucy new novel called The Joy of Mom. If you require writing and editing services, I highly recommend her. Go to

So, having Shell sets my mind at rest. Plus…

I ran into my friend Libba Bray today at Tea Lounge on Union Street & 7th Avenue, here in sunny Park Slope, Brooklyn. Libba is the author of the monstrously successful Young Adult books A Great And Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. We used to write in the same cafe together – she the legend, me the aspiring. Today, when I voiced my trepidation about the marketability of a book as profane as 85A, she spoke with enormous pride and conviction about how YA genre books have become more and more unflinching. If A Clockwork Orange were submitted for first-time publication today, it’d probably find a happy home in YA. I breathed a sigh of relief. I don’t know why I was surprised, though. Libba’s work is pretty two-fisted itself.

When I do get a publisher, I’m going to make a special request that I get to keep the quotes already featured on each of the three sections of my book. (That is, if it still has three sections after the publishers get done with it…)

The first quote for Part I comes from:

The Who - Quadrophenia

The Who - Quadrophenia

The song, “Four Faces” from The Who’s Quadrophenia:

You must have heard of them, a kind of screwed-up blend

Split personality

Two sides to fight and argue all night

Over coffee and tea…

I’ve got four hang-ups I’m trying to beat

Four directions and just two feet

Got a very very secret identity

And I don’t know which one is me.

From the time I started writing this book (originally, a short story) in January 2008, it never ceased to amaze me how much influence the album and movie Quadrophenia had on my personal aesthetic and sensibility. Seamus is just as confused as Jimmy, if not more so. (He’s younger, though…)

The quote from Part Two comes from…

New York Dolls

New York Dolls

The New York Dolls’ 1973 invective, “Personality Crisis”

All about the Personality Crisis

You got it while it was hot

But now frustration and heartache is what you’ve got…

In 85A, Seamus’s got a personality crisis, big-time.

Final quote, Part III, comes from:

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

The great Tennessee Williams: “There is a time for departure, even when there is no certain place to go.” Part Three is where Seamus finds himself at the most harrowing crossroads of his life.

Earnest Hemingway at His Writing Desk

Earnest Hemingway at His Writing Desk

Speaking of literary masters and writing (and because I have not been overzealous enough with posting pics), I read somewhere that Hemingway only wrote 500 words a day. This was an enormously helpful bit of news on those days when I had a famine of ideas but couldn’t answer to my conscience if I didn’t meet some healthy writing quota. I set 500 words as my daily minimum and often found myself surpassing that number each time a narrative momentum started to pick up. But we must also heed the advice that Hemingway gives in A Moveable Feast, which was basically: quit while you’re ahead; otherwise you won’t have anything to start with the next day.

Okay, so, that’s all for now re: 85A. More field reports coming soon.