By Stephen Kearse
Soft Skull: 320 pages, $27
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“Liquid Snakes“, Stephen Kearse’s second novel, is a snappy, hard-hitting read. The chapters are short, the dialogues have a satirical edge and the plot is a mixture of heist, mystery, sci-fi and crime. But the delights of the genre are deceptive; It may be fun to unwind the spirals of the narrative, but the poison stings – and worse than stings. This book is less rooted in pulp and more in afro-pessimism. You follow its winding paths, and just when you think you’re free from the maze, you stare into the dead, lidless eyes of America.
The book revolves around Atlanta, among other things emerging class of black professionals and aspiring professionals. But instead of post-racist hope, the city faces a new breed of racist violence. Promising black youth accept something this dissolves them and their surroundings, leaving a hole that looks like a “shimmering sea of blackness”. Epidemic Intelligence Service agents Ebonee and Retta are unsure if it is a drug or an explosive. But they’re quick to pair it with a chatbot app called Eightball, which appears to encourage its users to self-destruct.
Some spoilers follow for the first part of the book, but they are easy to deduce and are essential to describing Kearse’s project.
The person behind Eightball and the Deadly Poison/Bomb is Kenny, an independent coffee shop owner with a signature concoction called “Black Sublime”. At least he is during office hours. The rest of the time he’s a brilliant, villainous, supervillain chemist.
Kenny’s daughter Saskia was stillborn after his wife Maddy was exposed to the environmental toxins that the Kingman company dumped in black neighborhoods. Kenny’s sadness and anger finally subsided. His marriage fell apart and he began developing RST, a bond that could dissolve everything else. He then made it available to kids he found through his eightball app. Responding to his daughter’s chemical death by causing chemical death to other black children seems perverse. However, Kenny sees it as a kind of mercy: “What sane person would not choose death if black lives were so perishable…?”
It’s a dark feeling, and the novel pursues it relentlessly. Kenny is the only real suspect, and his guilt is pinned down fairly early on. The point of the book is not to solve the case or bring Kenny to justice, but to systematically uncover the crippling hole of injustice that dissolves all hope and strategies of resistance into a shallow, unreflective slime.
Prosperity and seriousness are no protection against it environmental racism And police profiling; Kenny is late for an appointment because the police pull him over three times knowing only that he is black. In response to such prejudice, some blacks, like Kenny’s partner Thurgood, who “lived to protect and preserve his bread,” hope to find salvation in capitalism. Others, like Kenny’s baseball star nephew Maurice, turn to physical excellence and the hope of meritocracy. Retta devotes her life to good and fights the everyday killers – “diabetes, obesity…maternal mortality, alcoholism”. And Kenny himself resorts to terrorism and vengeance, plotting the horrific annihilation of Kingman’s corporate board of directors.
Each of these approaches, according to Kearse, is a dead end in more ways than one. Thurgood will find that “at a certain height, masculinity came into question”; Blackness and patriarchy just can’t work together. Maurice must prove himself worthy at baseball, making it more of a trap than an escape; He hates the game and, by extension, the player who depends on it – himself. Retta’s old-fashioned commitments are no match for RST’s new plague. And Kenny’s revenge is even more useless. “[T]”These aren’t people who give feedback, even to each other,” Maddy tells him. “You could kill the entire board and they would just hire a new board.”
Toward the end of the novel, Retta asks, “So you’re saying that we, our people, are a crime scene?” What remains after RST is unleashed is symbolic of what was and is still being done to Retta, Kenny, and their relatives becomes. The United States is relegating blacks to a toxic crater—a nightmarish absence.
“The function of black(ness) is to give form to a terrifying formlessness,” wrote the Afro-pessimist philosopher Calvin Warren. White liberty and existence, Warren argues, depend on black servitude and mischief. By making people a hole in the ground, white people make sure they haven’t been swallowed up.
In this context, Kenny’s RST could be seen as a kind of reclamation of nihilism; He grasps and wields the black nothingness in the way some hip-hop stars have embraced and recaptured violent black stereotypes. Dissolving black children into sticky puddles is not a great victory, however. The liquid snake that devours itself, the novel that ends in a bloom of death and irony, leaves little to work with.
Kearse offers an elliptical path to freedom; It ends with a young girl realizing “that she didn’t have to look down the abyss to get through and out of it.” Given all the abysses we’ve explored throughout the book, that’s not much of a blueprint for optimism. But writers don’t owe their readers hope, and blacks certainly have no obligation to reassure the US that all will be well when all the evidence points to it not being the case.
Liquid Snakes is a strange, confusing puzzle; a mocking eulogy; a bitter, self-destructive exercise in what one character calls “vivid ideation”; a long look into a hole of sadness. It spins in your hands and in your heart before it bites.
Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago.