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.