All This Could Be Yours
  • March 18, 2020

    Opening Round

  • Jami Attenberg

    2All This Could Be Yours
    3We Cast a Shadow

    Maurice Carlos Ruffin

  • Judged by

    Barry Harbaugh

We Cast a Shadow

Dead fathers, locked-up fathers, fathers over in some oily blonde’s bed. If you are so lucky as to have a family, and especially if you had one and lost it, the warmth of the holidays burn in a husk of sadness. Massive nationwide family gatherings accentuate grief and absence, do they not? Worse you might have to spend real quality time with the living. God forbid anyone sleep under the same roof. Sooner or later a member of your DNA network will give themselves up as something repulsive to another link in the chain (or worse, a spouse), and after a few harrowing days of logistical synchronicity that drove everyone to the brink of cannibalism, the decorations come down, the air beds deflate and the pressure leaves everyone’s carotid artery. Point being: Uninterrupted weeks of forced interaction with your family is a wonderful time to read.

Barry Harbaugh is a senior editor at Amazon Original Stories. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

And so I have. With a spirit of forced interaction, I read both of these novels during a most goyish Hanukkah while the drones struck 2019 and a deadline loomed, when I wasn’t bombing down some freeway with my nuclear codex, my half-lives, my two sleeping beating hearts, wife and child.

I read in three (count ‘em!) of our barely United States, each with its own sort of absence and surplus since the passing of my pops in 2006 and the birth of my son in 2018. Both are books about the burdens and secrets of family—and of fathers, in particular. I liked them each in their own way and disliked them each in their own way and was glad to have read them both if only so that I can skip the inevitable streaming TV versions. (Reader, I confess. I would have skipped them anyway.)

Wonder which one I’ll pick.

To sum up the books without drawing the full measure of their due, we have over here a smart and elegant construction of the stifled horror of family matters and the felt passage of time itself over a day of reckoning in New Orleans, All This Could Be Yours. Effortlessly paced like a Great American Play, Buried Child, or Fun Home, I read it by the wood-burning fire of the Black Mountain house of cheese in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. (Don’t go there, not a delight, opposite of delight.)

With a chorus of perspectives alternating chapter by chapter, the novel’s characters orbit the body of Victor, their mobbed-up, vaguely criminal father and grandfather and husband and lover and—for a young staff member of the coroner’s office, Corey—last job of the day. Victor’s fatal collapse in the first chapter starts us off. Despite his eldest daughter’s pressing quest, over the ensuing 24 hours, to understand the exact nature of his sudden disappearances and harsh tactics throughout her childhood—for instance, mandated silence on the weekends; throttling Gary, Alex’s brother; and repeatedly abusing his wife Barbra—this does not devolve into Goodfellas. We will never glimpse the criminal network that employs Victor, or relish in his mythic post-war kneecapping. Even if we repeatedly encounter Mom taking the photos of his files. “He probably cheated on Barbra,” Gary says, by phone at one point. “And he hit her, and he hit me, and he hit you… What other information do you need? What great secret will be revealed?”

Plenty, Gary! The novel reaches something of an intergenerational climax. As. It. Were. Victor’s big dick swagger and charismatic chokeholds are long out of date—but very much present in the lives of the family he left behind. While Alex joins Barbra in the retired couple’s recently adopted condo complex in New Orleans, Gary is “sitting this one out” in Silver Lake. He’s sent his wife Twyla in his stead for soon-to-be explained reasons. Twyla, a freckled Georgia peach who smells of sunscreen and chapstick with her belly button showing between the taut fuzziness of her tracksuit, is oddly moved. Barbra chases 10,000 steps daily on her watch thing—too good of a narrative frame to pass up—and rehashes the chain of discovery that she really has made regarding her husbands’ secrets—the credit card, the third apartment—that really only add up to one big secret: betrayal of their terms. Something only she and Gary and Twyla know…for now.

The nano-mechanics of the novel itself are sophisticated and seamless—a day passes and the secret is revealed to us all (and finally to Alex). The relay of Barbra’s youthful romance with Victor during one of her early ambles is one of the book’s highlights, along with an interlude in the family chorus at novel’s end that unceremoniously dumps Victor’s body and lands the novel’s parting theme, helicoptered into the 11th Ward.

The novel’s last chapter is more of an epilogue. Alex’s daughter Sadie and Twyla’s daughter Avery reveal, by way of their shared inheritance when Barbra dies, what this family secret hath wrought. But first, at the New Orleans coroner’s office, the coroner Sharon, a New Orleans native, accepts a certain big guy’s unclaimed remains while processing the recent passing of her own parents (with perhaps too magical of poise and grace under fire, maybe? [Ducks] Maybe?). At work, her staff is processing a funny answer from this big guy’s next of kin: “You can keep the bastard.” Noticing their silence in the middle of this story, she hopes the men on her staff are “thinking about their wives and children or lovers. How they had treated them last night, and this morning. If they had kissed them goodbye, or raised their voices instead. It was none of her business, she’d never say a word to them about it, but she wanted these men to contemplate it all right then. How to be a little kinder at the end of the day to the ones they loved.”

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

Victor is dumped the next morning in a mass grave by a municipal gravedigger under a hurricane alert. “Ghosts didn’t scare him [the gravedigger, as nameless as Shakespeare’s] but the thought of a storm did.”

* * *

Next by unmarked post came We Cast a Shadow, more of an asymmetrical picaresque shot through by a quicksilver of evil, an ambitious debut whose short chapters I read while flying over Kentucky, sitting next to a MAGA hat in Indiana, and also by the fire at the Black Mountain house of cheese in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (avoid at all costs).

We Cast a Shadow somehow combines the paternal wherewithal of Between the World and Me with a shade of the narrative trappings of Pale Fire to stage the formative professional, familial, and political dramas that are further damaging a young law associate’s (and historically ignorant new father’s) traumatized psyche. In “the City,” a city-not-unlike-Atlanta that has outlawed the Black Power fist afro pick among some other horrifically plausible shape-shifting, we see blackface and whitewashing anew, as well as its effect on three generations of men in the same family, the last of whom is finally pointed toward a life of freedom, no thanks to Pops. The story is told from the notebooks of (I think this is kind of a spoiler?) a white man who used to be black. If that explains the diamond-cut thesaurus words, the continuity gaps, the fact of the dialogue often reading like magnets of the same pole speaking to each other, or why a phantom lick of a phantom dog in a dream is described as “synesthetic”… all the more powerful! His voice is pretentious and nearly British in a Moriarty kind of way, always reaching for obscure modifiers and correcting people on their grip of vocabulary. “[By ‘soliloquy’] you mean a monologue,” he corrects the about-to-be-violent-n-word-uttering cop arresting his father for a stolen bike, during a central reminiscence of his youth.

Constantly confused, resorting to Uncle Tom Foolery from the very beginning, literally attacking his melanin in order to pass—by novel’s end—as “American White,” the unnamed narrator is himself prone to gaffes of the political moment here on Earth. He ignores the Polonius-like advice of his imprisoned and abandoned father “Sir,” advice that wisely amounts to: Beware white capriciousness. He mistakes a female doctor for a nurse, a black CEO (and the one client he has to impress) for a suspicious person, and views history itself as “neither good nor bad.” “History is landscape. History is backdrop. It is context,” says the narrator. “Anyone who peers into a canyon and finds something hateful in it is seeing their own reflection.”



Perhaps what’s most provocative about the novel is this artifice, so many superficial safeguards to the confidence and privilege of the wrong reader, the reader who won’t notice anything amiss. But you can’t miss the most hideous part, even with a “Blue Lives Matter” bumper sticker lashed across your face. Mister narrator has a white wife, Penny, who is duly horrified by his obsession in bleaching the splotchy black out of their son, Nigel… before she dies and all hell breaks loose.

I’m going to say that last part again: He is bleaching the skin of his boy with rare and painful chemicals, even while describing in Wes Anderson-like detail the ongoing game of submarine they play in their car’s sunroof. He’s trying to get promoted so he can afford the ultimate procedure to turn his son the purest white, in short, it turns out.

The idea of kindness at the end of the day to the ones you love etc is a “quaint condominium complex in the Garden District” by comparison.

I’m going to pick the defiant and deceptive over the accomplished crowd-pleaser, is my thinking here. In place of any objective rationale, which might be argued with, I’m simply going to share one of the small pleasures in my experience reading We Cast a Shadow, and call it a judgment. This was among my favorite passages, a rare moment of safety for our beleaguered narrator at home in the Tikolosche Housing Project (aka Da Tito), the massive complex where he grew up, an ode to community and to the feeling of belonging in the world as you are. It is a Where’s Waldo? panorama that sneaks up on you like the revelation of an unseen world:

People, my people, walked toward the grounds and were in their finest too: a sister in a slinky purple dress with her matching hat and matching man, a brother in head-to-toe zebra skin, his woman likewise, pregnant women carrying the unborn in their zeppelin-bellies, old women in boxy floral dresses and old men in Kangols and gold rings, both groups swaying to an old beat only they heard, a group of brothers in bejeweled football jerseys and flat-billed caps, a flock of small children dressed in rainbow-colored jumpers, a trio of teenage girls in feathers, a family reunion in all white wearing shirts that prayed for a loved one to rest in peace, a woman with hair styled to look like a fruit basket, another with braids that fell to her ankles, a basketball team in black sweats cutting across the grounds and towering over the rest of us, as if they were the only adults in an endless rumpus room, politicians with primped hair and party pendants on their lapels, a gaggle of cosplayers appearing as Japanese warriors with humongous swords, fairies, human-animal hybrids, steampunks, comic book super-types, and imaginary creatures I’d never imagined, sorors and fraternities sporting windbreakers glowing with Greek letters, bodybuilders, virtually naked in tank tops and short shorts despite the cold, and a woman absolutely naked except for her piercings and body paint. And yes, even a few white people.

TODAY’S WINNER: We Cast a Shadow

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Match Commentary

By Rosecrans Baldwin & Andrew Womack

Rosecrans Baldwin: Judge Harbaugh is a book editor by day, but I wonder if he missed his calling as a writer?

Andrew Womack: I agree—this is an extraordinary judgment. But right now I’m wondering if he missed his calling as a fortune teller. Because of how the ToB schedule works behind the scenes, Judge Harbaugh submitted this judgment in early January. Yet at this very moment—this period of social distancing and self-isolation—this line takes on such new meaning: “Uninterrupted weeks of forced interaction with your family is a wonderful time to read.” I mean, who knows where we’re all headed at this point, but I like to think this is what most of us should be doing right now. Being together with those we love—or failing that, our families. We can spend this time reading and writing.

Though I know what you and I are spending this very strange time doing—which is all this.

Rosecrans: Andrew, how well do you stomach satire? I’m thinking Catch-22, Vonnegut, and Pynchon, the great Rooster winner The Sellout (as much as Paul Beatty may dislike “satire” as a categorization). Those are books and authors I love, but frequently I don’t stomach written satire very well. So many put on a show of being comic without being very funny or surreal or insightful. It can feel like the author is aiming for something else—commentary, scathing, a dressing-down. I also have a tough time finding a way in when the wordplay is rivaling the cleverness of the conceit. And yet, and yet, and yet—in We Cast a Shadow the horrors felt so close to home, and so novelly reconstructed (something Judge Harbaugh really hones in on) I kept flipping the pages.

Andrew: I love good satire. But “good” is a tough mark to hit, since it has everything to do with the audience and the timing of the work. For satire to succeed, the audience has to be in on the joke, which by nature means a lot of satire ages poorly. When I read Catch-22 in the early ‘90s, during the Gulf War, I got the point, but I didn’t get the joke—which maybe means I didn’t get the point. Even though it was during wartime, it wasn’t relatable to me. If there’d been a draft in place, maybe that would have changed my reading of it.

Likewise, I have to wonder if We Cast a Shadow means more to some audiences than others. We know this is a great book—that’s why it’s here; all these books are, to one or another member of the ToB committee, great—but that doesn’t mean it’s going to land for all of us.

In all honesty, what all this means to me is I have a lot more to learn.

Rosecrans: What a great point. Well, All This Could Be Yours may be out of the ToB for now, but it is yet another terrific book by Attenberg, who’s closing in on something like two decades’ worth of high-quality realistic fiction ever since The Middlesteins broke through. We once published a restaurant review by Ms. Attenberg that is about tacos and not about tacos, and it’s great.

Andrew: As many readers know, so far this Tournament we’ve brought a few of the finalists for this year’s Reader Judge here into the booth with us. I think more than any year, you and I had a lot more deliberation about who would take that spot. And as I think everyone here can tell based on the commentaries so far, we had a wealth of talent who’d volunteered—deciding who would be our Reader Judge wasn’t an easy decision.

Rosecrans: Absolutely true.

Andrew: In fact, as the applications were coming in last December, just under the two-minute mark before the window closed, we received our final submission, from Linda Shaver-Gleason, whose entry began: “I’m a musicologist being assassinated by cancer while raising an autistic child and writing my first (only) book.”

At this point we’d narrowed down our pool of finalists—many of whom you’ve seen here with us in the commentary so far—but Linda’s entry stopped us in our tracks. Not because she was dying, necessarily, but because she was coming in hard with perspective on multiple fronts: musicology, parenting an autistic child, in the midst of writing a book. We knew she must have a lot to say. So we contacted her, and heard back almost immediately:

I’ve been following the ToB for years. Unfortunately, my timing isn’t great—I’m currently in hospice care, unlikely to live to the end of the brackets. I don’t know why I even entered, knowing this (other than noticing the deadline was 10 minutes away and wondering whether I could).

Over the next few weeks, we updated Linda behind the scenes as the judges’ decisions and written judgments arrived. We sent her the books. She read them. She wrote at one point, “The longer it takes for me to die, the more books I’ll get to read, which isn’t a bad thing… I’ll write again soon (I hope)!” Though she couldn’t be our Reader Judge, we’d planned to interview her here in the commentary booth for this match.

But it didn’t work out that way. Linda Shaver-Gleason died at the age of 37 on Jan. 14, 2020.

Though I hadn’t known Linda personally prior to any of this, over that brief time of talking with her, I came to feel not knowing her was such a missed chance. She was a force. A brilliant mind. Hilarious. Sardonic. (See her Twitter for proof of all of the above.) In short, she was one of us, and we should all mourn this loss.

You can help support her husband and son through their GoFundMe.

Now let’s hand it off to Kevin to tell everyone which of the eliminated books might still come back in the ToB.

Kevin Guilfoile: For the uninitiated, the Tournament of Books includes a “Zombie Round.” Before the Tournament begins each year, we ask ToB fans to vote for their favorite book on the shortlist, and we compile those votes in a massive database (with paper backup according to international election standards). After the semifinals, when our original bracket has been narrowed down to two books, before those novels can enter the championship they must each face off against a previously eliminated novel, which will have been given new life.

From now on, after every match, I will provide updates revealing the eliminated books that currently have the most Zombie votes. As more books are knocked out of competition, these contenders could change.

As of today, the two novels that have the most votes among those books so far eliminated are (in no particular order, unless alphabetical is an order) Normal People and Nothing to See Here.

That means we must officially say goodbye to All This Could Be Yours, Golden State, Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, Oval, Overthrow, The Testaments, The Water Dancer, and Your House Will Pay.

The quarterfinals begin tomorrow as Judge Maret Orliss must make the call between Saudade and Fleishman Is in Trouble. Reader Judge finalist Stuart Shiffman will join Andrew Womack in the commentator booth.


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