“Black Jesus” [Review]

“I’m Black Jesus now.”

“Excuse me?”

“Black Jesus. It’s what they call me.”

“Who?”

“The guys in my squad.”

“Why?”

“I guess ’cause I’m so white. And ’cause my last name’s White. And ’cause I was born on Christmas Day.”

“I don’t get it.”

“One of the guys’ dads was a Georgia preacher. Told him all kinds of crazy shit. Jesus married a hooker. Jesus was really a black man. Shit like that.”

“Nice.”

“It’s called sarcasm, Ma.”

Sarcasm is a theme running through Black Jesus by Simone Felice. Black Jesus, the title character, is a returning veteran from Iraq who lost his sight in a bomb blast. He views the world with a sarcastic gaze that colors everything the reader sees. From his mother, the “flea market” hustler who committed arson to buy a diary queen, to Joe the Deputy whose mother warns him about the future and he ignores, to Gloria, who is neither the dancer she claims nor is that her real name – all of them are in some measure sarcastic.

But they are also extremely in earnest. They are all looking for a better life and in the process of finding it in each other. This book is as much about the guards people put on their heart to avoid getting hurt as it is the terrible effects of violence on people’s lives. It is a gritty realistic book that could also be a fairy tale.

I picked this book at random from a shelf at the library when I saw the title. It is a provocative title and it worked on me. But when I started to read I was so completely hooked that there was no putting it down. This is a well-written book, one of the few I’ve had the pleasure to read recently.

Reviewing fiction is harder than reviewing non-fiction. There are no arguments to respond to, no qualitative judgments on its subject matter that can be substantiated by an appeal to evidence. Fiction creates feelings and impressions which are far more important than basic logic can ever reach. It’s easy enough to say that I liked this book. It’s a bit harder to explain why.

I think one reason would be because it is so optimistic. Despite the sarcasm, the jadedness that every character portrays, they are all hopeful in some respect. Black Jesus, for instance, saw a vision of a woman just before the bomb blast robbed him of his sight. That vision was the last thing he ever saw and he remembers it, holds onto it even as he struggles with being blind. So when Gloria shows up, he knows that she is the woman in his vision. For the first time in the novel, we see Black Jesus excited and we see this because he has been hoping for his vision to come true from the beginning.

The book leaves plenty of ambiguity as to whether Gloria really is the woman from the vision or not. It does not stray into the metaphysical-ness of sappy romance stories. She could be a vision, or she could simply be the woman Black Jesus chooses to be his vision. It really doesn’t matter which is true. What matters is that the characters find ways to inject hope into their difficult lives.

Simone Felice’s writing is part of what makes this book work. It is not over-done. There are no long, flowery descriptions or explanations. It is very present in the way it is written, which adds to the impact of the book. What is difficult for the characters is difficult for the reader because just like the characters, the reader cannot escape what’s happening. That is a very hard thing to achieve and Felice does so.

Taken as a whole, Black Jesus is an excellent book. The version I read was published by Allen & Unwin in Australia (they publish many of my recent favorites, it seems), but I’m sure it’s available in America as well. After all, Black Jesus is an American soldier and the book is thoroughly American in its location and feel. If you’re looking for a book that is both realistic and hopeful about reality, this is the book you’re looking for.

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