The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

“Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!”

This novella takes place in 1920s New York. Charles Thomas Tester is a bit of a ‘hustler’ who sings and plays his guitar on the streets even if he isn’t a particularly talented musician. Still, he gives it a go trying to earn some money to support himself and his father. Whenever he ventures outside of Harlem he’s subjected to racist slurs, stared/glared at by white people, and harassed by the cops. He eventually finds himself coming into contact with a mysterious tome, a sorceress, and a wealthy white man who may be dabbling in the occult.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.

While the premise did intrigue me I had a hard time following the story. The first few pages are straightforward enough but once Tom comes into contact with that old man (i’ve forgotten his name) I just had a hard time understanding what was going and the characters’ motivations. It didn’t help that the narrative tone is slightly at a remove from the characters, which was a pity as we don’t get to delve into Tom’s character. He makes a few puzzling choices or says a few odd things that just…I’m not sure, I just didn’t fully comprehend what was going with his character. I also disliked that that cop, Malone or whatever his name was, gets so much page time. Towards the end, he seems to have more scenes than Tom himself. The narrative had already established that he’s racist and a genuinely abhorrent human being. So no, I didn’t feel particularly keen on spending time alongside him, especially when that time could have served to make Tom into less of a puzzling character. That wealthy decrypt white guy also…I didn’t buy into him. I get that his attempts to awaken whatever evil supernatural forces he wanted to awaken were meant to be OTP, however, I still found him to be a plot device more than a character (even calling him a caricature seems too generous).
Still, I did for the most part like the author’s style. The story has a strong sense of place and there are some clever descriptions. However, I can’t say that, on the whole, I found this novella particularly gripping or insightful. If you happen to like modern takes on Lovecraftian/cosmic horror this may be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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