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In ‘Hell of a Book,’ an author and his imaginary friend go on a book tour

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Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book” is a novel that confounds the normal parameters of storytelling. What starts out as a relatively straightforward tale about a Black author’s cross-country tour for his novel, also titled “Hell of a Book,” soon meanders into a broader meditation on imaginary friends, mental illness, alcoholism and deep, deep grief.

As soon as you think you know where the story is going, the lines between reality and imagination blur, thanks to an unnamed narrator who is unreliable and not entirely likable. When he first appears, he’s naked and on the run. It’s 3 a.m., and he’s escaping from the angry husband of a woman he slept with. Just a few pages later, when he’s safely inside an elevator (still naked), he meets an elderly woman and feigns sympathy for a boy who was killed. He doesn’t care to ask questions.

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Our narrator is a Black man who tries desperately to forget he’s Black. For most of the book, the only time he acknowledges Blackness is through his imaginary friend, a very dark-skinned boy he calls “The Kid” who seems to follow our narrator everywhere.

While the book-tour story line can be disorienting, a second, more concrete narrative emerges about a boy who is also unnamed. His bullies call him “Soot” because of his dark complexion, and pretty soon so do we. Soot is easier to care for. He’s a quiet only child with two loving parents. His early life is filled with wonder despite the ever-present realities of Blackness — but when he witnesses a death in the family, he changes. He sees that being Black, being himself, is deadly. Even as Soot shifts from innocent to scarred, even as he grows hardened to the miseries of life, all we want to do is hold him and hold him tight.

There is a sense of calm in Soot’s story that is in direct and jarring contrast with our narrator’s tell-all. The author’s language is abrasive and assertive, sometimes directly addressing the reader. A few chapters in, he says: “I’m sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m an author. My name is ______. Maybe you’ve heard of me and maybe you haven’t, but you’ve probably heard of my book.” His sense of bravado appears to be well-earned — everyone he meets tells him he wrote one “hell of a book” — and yet he doesn’t even know what it’s about.

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Throughout the novel, our unnamed narrator battles with how to tell his story. His charismatic — albeit one-dimensional — media trainer, Jack, tells him that the most successful stories are those without any real drama. “Write about love,” Jack says. “Love and Disney endings. Not suffering. Not oppression. Not fear. Not the slights of the past — imagined or documented. Not disappointment. Not death. Never death. Only love. . . . Love is a form of absolution — if not expressed, then implied.”

So the author attempts to transform his story into something easy and palatable; he even finds a woman, because romantic love is a necessary ingredient in any Disney ending. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that his plan fails.

And yet, “Hell of a Book” is a love story, even if it’s about a love that led to grief. Our narrator’s heartbreak is what causes him to see the world through a broken lens, to the point that plot-oriented readers may find themselves frustrated. But the beauty of the novel is in the cracks that distort the plot. His conversations with The Kid lead to very real reckonings with his life, his skin color, his book. And at the end, when the narrator tries to come to terms with it all — both what’s real and imagined — he realizes that being Black in America and existing is a journey of love.

“Laugh all you want, but I think learning to love yourself in a country where you’re told that you’re a plague on the economy, that you’re nothing but a prisoner in the making, that your life can be taken away from you at any moment and there’s nothing you can do about it — learning to love yourself in the middle of all of that? Hell, that’s a g--d---mn miracle.”

Natachi Onwuamaegbu is a reporting intern for The Washington Post’s Features department.

Hell of a Book

By Jason Mott

Dutton. 336 pp. $27

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