I picked up the novel, "The Residue Years," by Mitchell S. Jackson mainly because it is set in Portland. I have a soft spot for books set in this beautiful state and, because Jackson is black, I was curious about the author's perspective on growing up in a city with so little diversity.
Jackson's portrait of life in the City of Roses is unlike any I've seen before, and "The Residue Years," is unlike anything I've read. The book is not quite fiction, but extends well beyond memoir. There is no Hollywood ending.
Jackson, who now lives in New York and teaches writing at New York University, grew up in the crime- and drug-infested ghettos of northeast Portland in the 1990s. The book is largely based on the author's life, and chronicles the struggles of a family nearly ruined by poverty and their mother's crack addiction. Jackson's Portland is both sinister and oppressive, where gentrification squeezes the poor into tight, angry corners and the recurring threat of rain means that no one good is on the streets at night.
The story is told from the perspectives of two characters. Grace, a mother who is recently out of court-ordered rehab, is trying to stay sober and reconnect with her three boys. Champ, her eldest son, begins selling crack to buy back the family home, a house occupied by another family with no intention to sell, in a rapidly gentrifying area.
Grace intends to stay focused on her goals, but the system doesn't make it easy. She's put in a halfway house near her old neighborhood, and far from anywhere she can get a decent job. Her criminal record prevents her from getting the office jobs she used to have. She ends up working at a fast-food restaurant, barely able to make ends meet while paying for living expenses and court fees, and desperately tries to avoid her old drug-using crowd and its temptations. Her two younger sons have all but given up on her, but Champ is determined to be his mother's lifeline.
The first-person narrative shifts between the two main characters as they try to hold their family together and realize a fractured sort of American Dream. Both main characters are likeable and easy to root for. Grace is insightful and strong-willed, someone readers can imagine breaking out of her cycle of addiction as she tries to soldier through so many obstacles in her way. At one point, she realizes she needs to ask for help in getting shared custody of her children: "There are times when I can do it alone. There are times when doing it alone is the surest way to fall." Champ is going to college, living with a girlfriend he loves, and, though also selling drugs, he is strangely idealistic. In language that blends street-wise youth and wise-cracking professor, he quotes the Bible and Nietzsche, and describes one desirable woman as having "an ass that could turn staunch assologists into teary-eyed swains." Jackson's writing style is raw and poetic. His characters struggle with personal responsibility, limited options and a desire for a better life. He subtly underscores the failures of our social and justice system by including blank legal and social documents the characters are familiar with: a drug diversion contract, a petition for child custody, a police report. The forms might seem gimmicky in a less honest book, but in "The Residue Years," they are just a slice of life, artifacts of the faceless bureaucracy that his characters and so many real people face every day.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.