Most of the reviews I’ve seen have outlined Coates’s remarkable story. But what strikes me most is his voice. I have about as little exposure to the language of black America as is possible for an American. At points in the book, the unfamiliar slang knots up beyond my guessing. And obviously I have no way to know how close it is to the world he’s remembering, West Baltimore in the 1980s and onward. Yet throughout I hear Coates’s ownership of this voice — his fusion of diverse vocabularies, registers, traditions into a personal creole, faithful to all its origins in pandering to none. A passage of direct narration (116-7):
Plus I was not alone. We would start off only five or six deep, trooping down Tioga, down Gwynne Falls, and then up the grass hill. But all of us had boys from other districts, and as we traveled you would see a homeboy from summer camp or elementary, whose clique would be assimilated, and in this way we would expand until, atop Dukeland hill, dap was exchanged, and we were many deep. We’d front at the top of the concrete steps, talking shit, cultivating rage until we were ice grilled, until our movements were warning flares and bared teeth.
Then I was alone again, because initially none of my crew was gifted and talented. I soloed into the next level of the Marshall Team — 8-16, fewer boys this time, and that meant trouble. Our army was smaller now and could not tolerate pacifists. I remembered who I’d been just a year earlier, spaced out and ready to run, and wanted no part of it. I thought of walking in, smacking the first fool I saw, and taking a suspension like a badge. But that was just the voice of my intelligent armor. I was still a dreamer, if now repressed, was still cupcakes and comic books at the core.
Take a minor precise detail: “gifted and talented” — the grammatical incongruity tells us the phrase is in quotes, from the bureaucratese of school. Or the chiming of “dap” and “deep”, both used repeatedly elsewhere.
The closest analogy in my own reading (an idiosyncratic association, implausible as influence) is Iain Sinclair’s nonfiction, say Lights Out for the Territory. But enough about me — go read.