The characters who populate the nine stories in Jamel Brinkley's singular collection feel simultaneously like budding children and grown men who have lived several lifetimes ... They report on their worlds with an outsider quality so characteristic of the young—observant and aware but struggling to gain access to others—yet are capable of distilling the motivations of those around them with a deftness so swift it's almost damning ... his masterfully paced stories bring each character he constructs into the half-light, where they often remain seductively enigmatic ... Through pages of peerless prose and startingly sharp sentences, what ultimately emerges is a constantly reframed argument about the role of power and masculinity, where vulnerability pulses beneath a skin of self-preservation.
There’s something magical about a great story collection. The stories bump up against each other and speak to each other, as well as to the reader, creating a whole that’s significantly more than its parts. In A Lucky Man, Jamel Brinkley’s stunning debut collection, the stories are not formally linked, and yet they are, implicitly, by their beautiful prose, by their intimate gaze at character, by their focus on black men, by their setting in New York City. These are stories that can be read again and again because each time through, the reader learns a bit more: about the characters, about the world, and about themselves ... The collection will rightly be compared to Edward P. Jones’s story collections, and Brinkley’s stories also bring to mind the work of William Trevor and Yiyun Li ... A collection as fine as this, of fiction that is reflecting our world and searching for the truth, is one to be treasured, read and reread, admired, and loved.
... the collection is intent on recognizing what masculinity looks like, questioning our expectations of it, and criticizing its toxicity — and somehow managing to do all of that with love ... There's a fine line between outright, blatant, or malicious sexism and this more comfortable, seemingly less offensive place where men are merely ignorant of the ways they take possession of women — their looks, their labor, their humanity. And this is the line Brinkley knows how to straddle, creating fully formed characters who wrestle with what they think they have a right to ... And while it's clearly a topic that concerns him, Brinkley's book isn't only about masculinity. It also deals in family relationships, love, aging, loss, and disappointment — the universal themes that keep us coming back to literature — while also conveying versions of black male experience. In fact, the collection may include only nine stories, but in each of them, Brinkley gives us an entire world.
Brinkley offers a consistent geographic setting — New York, mostly the Bronx and Brooklyn ... Brinkley codes the stories with telling details without overdetermining the imagined world around his characters ... Brinkley offers a number of these piercing moments — desire and expectation and misunderstanding shot through American fields of race, power, history, and gender. He renders it all with a humane imagination for what characters miss, what they mean to say, what they might have done ... Among A Lucky Man’s many wonderful accomplishments — the way the length of each story affords its characters room to move; the use of linear, progressive time to knit the individual stories into a social fabric, à la Alice Munro or Wideman — one in particular is genuinely path-clearing. Brinkley offers visions of manhood and masculinity that demonstrate candor without false intensity ... Brinkley’s stories offer the vivid mystery of life.
Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection, A Lucky Man, comprised of tenderly poignant narratives of boys becoming men, of fractured intimacy, of masculinity as learned performance, is vital and necessary ... A Lucky Man is not a book about race, it is a book about longing, about intimacy. A collection about navigating the space between adolescence and adulthood, about understanding the powers and limitations of the body, about the ways in which we let traumas fester when we leave them unattended. Brinkley uses his profound gift of language to speak for characters who themselves do not have the words to express their pain ... What is most astonishing about A Lucky Man is how Brinkley carves a space for men to examine theirs in the presence of humor, sensuality, adolescent curiosity and grief. He lets all of these deeply human experiences coalesce.
In Brinkley’s work, no character is left untended, no aspect of identity is overlooked, and the results are well-inhabited worlds that feel infinite ... No other writer comes to mind that does such a sound job of creating dissonance between the emotions young men feel in actuality and what they believe is representative of manhood ... Brinkley is a deft architect, one whose mastery of craft shines through innovation rather than recreation ... A Lucky Man is not only a standout debut for the year, but also a testament to what can be achieved in a short story.
Brinkley's stories are precious without being fragile. They're quiet, masterpieces in mood, tone, characterization, and family dynamics ... the stories in this collection are consistently good and will speak to the hunger in any reader wanting tender and nuanced stories about manhood ... Brinkley's willingness to pace himself with these stories and set scenes strong enough to be expanded in deeper formats is generous and remarkable at the same time ... At their best they are fully realized distillations of multi-leveled scenarios that will only grow deeper with repeated readings ... Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man is a story collection that shadowboxes with your heart.
Brinkley’s book is packed with valuable, if disconcerting, insights. His stories, frequently set in New York City, where he grew up, often focus on introspective black male characters. Race is an important theme, but it’s just one of many subjects that inspire him: He’s particularly sharp on the ways in which children use fantasy to fortify themselves, and his depictions of love’s many varieties are subtle and deeply observant ... With this observant book, Brinkley demonstrates an enviable capacity for narrative compression. In the space of 25 pages, he’s capable of creating complex and memorable emotional worlds. This is a very hard thing to do, but in A Lucky Man, he pulls it off in one story after the next.
The fact that it is a debut is astonishing. Brinkley innately understands the pulses and rhythms of the English language. Every short story could only have been written sentence by limpid sentence, weighed in the mouth before set to the page. In his soft yet deft use of assonance and alliteration he builds prose so exact it’s a marvel—the sentences never ‘go purple’, they’re properly grounded in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. Smoothly paced, his phrases meld the intricacies of the psyche to the undulating, id-like thrum of diction ... Here are stories that stroke your nerves like a violin bow, that touch at that unbearable disjuncture where self doesn’t meet self, where you can’t do that Forsterian thing, ‘only connect’.
Brinkley’s stunning debut depicts urban life in all its lonely, wearying detail ... These characters may be hanging on by frayed threads, but they are very much alive and not so much guarded against whatever hardships may befall them as, rather, looking for a lucky break and welcoming chance with open arms. With this memorable collection, Brinkley emerges as a gifted and empathetic new writer.
It’s difficult to single out any story as most outstanding since they are each distinguished by Brinkley’s lyrical invention, precise descriptions of both emotional and physical terrain, and a prevailing compassion toward people as bemused by travail as they are taken aback by whatever epiphanies blossom before them. A major talent.
The title story and 'Clifton’s Place' are the collection's two most successful stories ... Other entries, in plot and in prose, can feel too polite and mannered to register as memorable, nodding toward a stylistic exuberance and transgressive edge that never fully appear. Nonetheless, Brinkley’s stories offer penetrating perspectives and stirring tragedies.