Sirens scream (for who else in the world but you?) in the distance.
In a prose style unlike any I’ve encountered before, Mitchell S. Jackson, novelist and writing instructor at New York and Columbia Universities, writes a memoir of his life and tumultuous upbringing in Portland, Oregon. His story is interwoven with those of family, friends, and tight communities, and underscored with considerations drawn from literature, mythology, psychology, and beyond. Themes of poverty, race, gang life and violence, sex work, drugs, and the struggle/survival dynamic are constants.
Ultimately, it’s about a life-changing exodus from the hard-to-break cycles he faced in Portland. As he tells it, it’s an exodus historically in the making, as his family were Oregon transplants: “The exodus of my tribe – the Jacksons – has roots in the 1950s, in the Mitzrayim that was Montgomery, Alabama.” He often begins to tell part of a story and then links it to broader ideas and concepts, using the personal as microcosm for something much bigger.
In this instance, he references Jewish culture and the Mitzrayim, explaining it’s “a place, but it also describes a liberation from psychological limits, the emotional journeys that one experiences all life long.”
My exodus occurs after years wandering the wilderness of my hometown, the crucible that included working a part-time, and only-time, gig…For bread to live. For bread to leave.
Jackson describes the wrecking influence of drugs in his hometown neighborhood and personally, on his family. In one of the most wrenching stories here (and there are many – illuminating, but wrenching), he describes his mother’s descent into addiction, and later a scene while dealing, discovering his mother is the client. The pain of this moment is encapsulated in the pain that’s been there all along, through generations and branches of a family tree, and where her struggle meets his.
If the science wouldn’t convince her, maybe she would’ve heeded me presaging all the nights she’d forsake us.
To even summarize what this book encompasses is difficult, as it’s less a linear narrative or easily distilled story than one to be experienced. The gist is that Jackson grew up part of a black community in Portland, one he knew quite differently than Portland’s current iteration as hipster enclave. He jumps around in time, which takes some getting used to, but the unconventional narrative feels appropriate, communicating the stress, anger, urgency and pressure that he’s lived his life with. The aches and suffering of this community make clear what he’s accomplished in changing the course of his narrative.
There’s music in Jackson’s writing – his is an unusual but vibrant, near-hypnotic style. It’s lyrical and lively, borderline interactive and impossible to read without feeling the unique, atmospheric rhythm of it. His vocabulary is immense and creative, street-slangy and topical blending into academic and wise. He bends language to do his bidding in wonderful ways, tweaking and adjusting verbs and nouns to serve purposes outside their normal ones but which feel at home here. The entire book is an example of how language can be played with to establish an unmistakably singular voice, and tell a separate story merely through tone and structure. I’ve never quite seen (or better; experienced) anything like it.
Jackson examines his life and its path – determinedly breaking away from ominously troubled roots (drug dealing, jail stint) and going east, finishing graduate school, now teaching at two of New York City’s most renowned higher education institutions. As he writes about another man he’s known, “rare is a life deserved of being defined by a single act.” But it’s not as easy as extracting oneself, as he shows – the effects of his upbringing linger in psychology and identity.
A recurrent issue grappled with is masculinity and treatment of women. In addition to his hardworking mother, who’s plagued by her own demons, and great-grandmother (described as “not much taller than five feet nothing but Hercules, Hercules to most of the known world,”) he was raised under the influence of a group of men, mostly relatives and mentors including but not limited to his biological father. They’re collectively his “Pops”.
And they’re flawed figures, but nuanced ones, and his explorations of their lives in the context of environment, culture, and history are powerful. The often-brief portraits he sketches, sometimes focusing intently on one scene or quality, end up being deeply affecting.
He drilled into my hard head and soft heart the notion that I could beat anybody so long as I ran with good form and believed.
But these men aren’t saints – returning to that topic of relationships between men, including the one he is, or hopes he is, or has been becoming, and the women who have loved, left, supported, or been “victimized” by them. This idea of men’s victimization of women – including a studied exploration of criminology and victimology, and acknowledging his own “crimes” in this area (even assigning levels – felony, misdemeanor, etc.) is an intense but fascinating element of the book. As he begins directing his writing to his daughter, it’s clear he wants to change his narrative yet again.
The psychology behind victimization has obviously weighed heavily on him, and as he details his crimes, he asks women he victimized to speak from their perspective, sometimes more successfully than others, but always speaking volumes. He sensitively analyzes what this long-standing, deep-seated treatment of women does to them, and how men who are victimizers turn it around on their victims:
What those men deem maudlin or hysterical – which let me repeat is the language of inexpressible pain – ain’t got nothing to do with a woman’s soul and in almost all cases has everything to do with what’s happened to her in the material world.
He shifts near-seamlessly between linguistic styles, as at home in the language of the streets as he is in smoothly waxing philosophic or distilling behavior and experiences using studied psychological principles. What was surprising is how appropriate it all feels – hearing it described, I’d have thought these transitions would be jarring, but they’re somehow perfect.
The most malicious of The Men victimize without remorse (“Women are machines for suffering,” Picasso once told a mistress), a capacity that confirms their lack of empathy, which is a word that wasn’t even a part of the American lexicon till the top of the twentieth century.
From here, he launches into an explanation of the ancient Greek roots of “empathy”. This is what consistently elevates this writing and storytelling – the narrative twists suddenly from an almost breathtakingly terrifying or brutal story into an academic study that shows how much thought, research, and meditation the author has dedicated to his subjects. He makes it look effortless.
Interspersed throughout are sections marked “survival files”, which allow him to creatively imagine pivotal scenes and stories from the lives of men he’s known. They’re also opportunities for him to stretch his lyrical prose style in different directions.
A unique blending of topics and writing styles that seem like they shouldn’t work but do, brilliantly, telling stories of lives and experiences foreign to me but which I understood better, at least in some small way, after being allowed to see and learn through Jackson’s eyes and insight.
Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family
by Mitchell S. Jackson
published March 5, 2019 by Scribner
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.