Most people who think of Portland, Ore., today picture charismatic bridges spanning the sparkling Willamette River, cozy coffeehouses and brewpubs on rain-slick streets, and passionate environmentalists bicycling to farmers markets.
But behind the scenes, Portland in the 1990s teemed with crack-dealers and users willing to sacrifice home and family for a night’s partying. And if you were African American, according to author Mitchell S. Jackson, life could be a specific sort of hell fraught with racial profiling and a lack of educational and employment opportunities—unless you were very, very good at basketball.
“Let them quit screaming your name,” he writes of young black athletes in his debut autobiographical novel, The Residue Years, “and worse-case you just might rob a bank (who gets away with that?), just might hatch a (hand to God this happened) flawed murder-for-insurance plot. But maybe it’s just here. In my city. Not yours.”
The Residue Years portrays Jackson’s childhood streets as darkened by poverty, abuse and addiction. Grace, newly clean after losing a corporate job to the allure of crack, finds a sympathetic employer and resolves to do better by her four sons. Champ is the oldest, the collegiate boy. Throughout the novel, Jackson lets the young man and his mother take turns telling their stories, giving readers multiple perspectives on a family dynamic now threatened by Grace’s litigious ex-husband, who hopes to retain custody of their younger sons, and by Champ’s attempts to keep his kin safe … by selling crack.
“You’d be surprised at how many chase heartache,” says one of his customers. “Need it to feel whole.” In adamant, provocative prose, Jackson examines that theme throughout the book, creating unexpected sympathy even for Champ’s mother as she surrenders everything once again to pursue her addiction.
The Residue Years will alter your view of Portland. Despite the Rose City’s impressive gentrification and its mostly genial residents, a desperate population still sleeps on the streets, willing to sacrifice any small gain for a new high. Rather than letting us sidestep their gaunt faces, their sleeping bags, their ragged cardboard signs, Jackson demands that we look at their motivations and ponder such profound scarcity in the midst of bounty.
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
The Residue Years
By Mitchell S. Jackson
352 pages, $26 (hardcover) or $17 (paperback)