Though the novel ostensibly recounts the events of four desperate days in New York, it extends far beyond these boundaries of time and space. In seamlessly integrated flashbacks, the narrator recalls the trauma of his 1970s childhood as a ‘social experiment,’ bused to the affluent suburbs of Boston from the city. He then uses these forays into the too-present past as springboards from which to investigate the fragmented histories of his abusive mother and perpetually absent father — so much ‘collateral damage of the diaspora’ ... Fighting a fate preordained as much by his genes as by his country, Thomas’s narrator is a man perpetually at risk. His tormented psyche subtly reveals how such ostensibly innocent American pastimes as baseball and golf can become vicious backdrops to the disillusionment of the marginal, and how kindness can be poison to those on whom it is imposed — to the point where the refusal of gifts carelessly offered becomes a question of self-preservation.
The handsome narrator, possessed of a sensibility more romantic than practical, has two weeks to come up with the cash to keep his family afloat – at least for the next few months. The novel is ponderous, if always intelligently written, as it becomes more an impressionistic journey of the mind than a sprint to the finish line … Caught between two worlds and fitting into neither, the narrator remains something of an enigma, less an invisible man than a failed ‘social experiment,’ as he often bitterly refers to himself ... The novel has a naturalistic bent as Thomas attributes his alter ego's problems to birthright and race, and he is convincing on this point.
Thomas has just begun to plumb the intricacies of race, identity and place in America. And it is not a calm examination. Thomas imbues the story with an intense pace and urgency as he explores masculinity, humanity and where the narrator – a self-proclaimed ‘social experiment’ – fits in … The writing is uneven throughout, perhaps reflecting the narrator's uneasy grasp on his world, perhaps the book's need for a stricter editorial hand. Either way, it tends to leave the reader caring deeply about the narrator in one chapter and frustrated with him in the next.
[The narrator’s] problems are certainly bourgeois: lack of private-school tuition won't strike many as a tragedy, and it apparently never occurs to anyone that the well-educated Claire might seek gainful employment. When he refuses a job offer from his mentor, readers may lose all sympathy for his plight: to lose a job may be regarded as a misfortune, to throw several away looks like carelessness. But the narrator is fighting his way toward a post-racial identity that doesn't erase – or, indeed, ‘whitewash’ – his past, without trapping him in it either. The story is about what it feels like to be black in a supposedly post-racial America … But the book is unquestionably redeemed by its intelligence, its ambition – and most of all by the lovely, bluesy riffs it ceaselessly plays on old American standards.
‘It's a strange thing to go through life as a social experiment,’ the wild-hearted narrator tells us in Michael Thomas's jazzy, sinewy debut novel … Thomas's urgent, quicksilver prose makes even the darkest moments of this novel shine.
A natural writer, he was taken under the wing of a prominent black intellectual during his college years, but didn't follow through as his relationship with Claire and then the demands of married life intensified. Now, as he struggles to support a life he isn't sure he believes in, he is tempted to return to drink, give up on his marriage and abandon his children, although Claire has demonstrated her unwavering support. For all of the introspection and occasional indulgence in self-pity, the narrator retains a note of hard-won optimism, and Thomas resolutely steers him clear of sentimentality.
Thomas spends much of his time meditating on the past of his hero, who identifies as black and ponders how much race has both supported and oppressed him. It’s an ambitious idea—with some obvious parallels to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—and the book is filled with some virtuoso passages that expose the subtle degrees of racism in the narrator’s world … It’s to Thomas’s credit that he takes care to not compress his scenes into simplistic parables about race, but the book’s breadth is more sprawling than ambitious. The reader is presented with so many characters...that it all ultimately feels more like a fuzzy satellite photo of Brooklyn than a clear portrait of a single person.