Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle


The Ballad Of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Published: February 16th, 2016
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780765387868
Source: Library
Challenges: Diverse SFF Book Club


Here’s the favor I’m doing myself (and you should too)- I’m not going to be reading Lovecraft’s The Horror At Red Hook. There’s plenty of books in the world not written by bigots towards which I would like to give my time and money. That said, well, if you want to know more about the horror show that was Lovecraft’s book, Tor did a great synopsis. Was more than enough for me, that’s for sure.

Here’s the first thing that I loved about the book- it’s existence. Warms my grouchy heart that someone took it upon themselves to respond to Lovecraft’s racist book- a well-written response, might I add. I mean, these were his opening lines:

“People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They don’t see it. They look for magic, and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

That made me grin so hard, and I was hooked (sorry guys, I’ve been all about the bad puns recently). LaValle manages to create such a juicy story in this tiny novella, only things like packing and moving could really force me to put the book down. The plot: Tom Tester is a young black man in 1920’s New York City, living with his father and hustling to make ends meet. He’s a mediocre guitar player, a terrible singer, and uses his guitar case to make his “deliveries.” One of these jobs results in his introduction to Suydam, who has a serious case of white savior complex. He exposes Tom to an occult experience where he is exposed to several hidden realities and possibilities. In the second half of the book, the perspective shifts to Malone (Lovecraft’s original protagonist), who is an NYPD detective that has been keeping tabs on Tester and Suydam and the horrors that ensue.

New York is strife with racial tension in the Jazz Age, and the author manages to convey this masterfully. Everyone- the cops, Tom’s dad, train conductors- everyone keeps reminding Tom of his blackness every time he dares set foot out of Harlem, reminding him to stay where he belongs. The racial tension isn’t unfamiliar, and LaValle has done a splendid job outlining it in the book. The underlying implication of the persuasion of power and its effects depending on whose lap it falls on, is so well-crafted by the author, he didn’t even have to explicitly state it in the prose. The characters have stunning emotional depth, the feelings of hurt, pain, and suspicion are very, very real. For lovers of the genre, I’d say this is one you shouldn’t miss, because it is such a well-crafted story, and it comes without all of Lovecraft’s racist narrative. Within this tiny, tiny book, the author manages to touch readers’ fears that are very real. Moral of the story: Things can get real dicey when people that have been power-deprived for too long are suddenly exposed to it. The preventative tactic would be to make power legitimate and not an exclusive shiny toy so that it loses some of its lustre and people don’t get desperate from the deprivation. 

So glad I took the time to participate in this edition of the Diverse SFF Book Club- it would’ve been a shame to miss out on this book. Can’t wait to see everyone else’s reactions and reviews. There’s a chance I might read it once more before I return it to the library. 




Author: Janani @ The Shrinkette

Speed reading aficionado. Unapologetic book pusher. Point me to the nearest bookshelf. My blog is dedicated exclusively to supporting and promoting marginalized voices. Pronouns: They/them

12 thoughts on “Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle”

  1. This sounds interesting, and I’m with you on not reading the Lovecraft.

    You say, “The underlying implication of the persuasion of power and its effects depending on whose lap it falls on, is so well-crafted by the author, he didn’t even have to explicitly state it in the prose. ” This, for me, is a sign of good writing. Thanks for writing the review.


  2. GAH so frustrated, I went to the library on Saturday to get this (among other things), and although they said they had it on the shelves, it was not in fact on the shelves. So I’m going to have to wait. I got another Lavalle book to tide me over.

    Ta for linking the Tor synopsis of the Lovecraft story. I’ve heard enough bad about Lovecraft that I’m probably not going to need to read his stuff ever, but I’ll be glad to have the background before I read the Lavalle novella.


    1. Library FAIL. Yeah I’ve never read Lovecraft either, and especially have no interest after reading about his old-white-dudeness. It’s a tiny novella so you’ll get through it in one sitting, don’t you worry.


  3. Great review Janani. Agree with your observations about power –it’s something I thought of too while reading the book. Thank you for the Tor link, I read the summary of Red Hook on Wikipedia; didn’t want to read the original.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment- yep, that Tor article and general Lovecraft garbage fire was more than enough for me, and I do not feel compelled to read Red Hook at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for reading the book, Janani and I’m so glad you liked it too. You definitely did yourself a favor by skipping The Horror at Red Hook because it was just slimy, offensive, terribly written, and so so boring. I think reading it for myself and being viscerally offended by the words I read with my own eyes helped me understand and appreciate The Ballad of Black Tom a little bit better than if I hadn’t read Red Hook. But it’s probably not necessary.
    I liked this book a lot but took slight issue with the depiction of Tom in the second half. I talk about this more in my review, which should be up next week!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha yeah I saw that some people had read The Horror at Red Hook along with this one and I was straight up NOPE. I am looking forward to reading your review when you publish it, you always have such good insights. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read it and going along with all of my rambling about feelings and such. I aim to write coherent reviews of books but haven’t had much success with it yet. Maybe some day.

      Liked by 1 person


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