In a story of the American Dream gone awry, the unnamed black narrator finds himself broke, estranged from his white wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend’s six-year-old child.
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.