No Good, by John Hope. Published in 2014. 137 pages.
No Good is the title character of this short novel I was introduced to when the author gave a copy of it to my husband to add to our library. Despite the fact that it is fiction, it took several pages of reading before I stopped experiencing the internal cringe I felt every time one of Johnny’s parents called out to him, “No Good…”
The interesting dichotomy is that No Good’s parent clearly cared about him a great deal, but the prevailing sensibilities of our day were virtually unheard of in the time, space, and socioeconomic station in which No Good and his family lived. The cover photo illustration (logic dictates this is No Good based on the author’s description) no doubt offers an indication of No Good’s and his family’s situation. Pancakes and sausage are a luxury to get excited about, and a bath is a once week dip in a wash tub filled and placed in the center of the kitchen.
Since the reconstruction of Japan is mentioned, I’ll estimate the era as the late 1940’s in the then small town of Sanford, FL. Since the climax of the story centers around the murder of a white boy in which a Negro man is the prime suspect, the irony of Sanford as the center of all the action was not lost on me. I wondered if this were coincidental or by design.
I approached this book initially assuming that it was one I could pass on to our 10-year-old to read but as I delved further into it, I decided that it is best reserved for the early teenage reader. Some of the themes, which would have been digestible for a poor, more world wise fifth grader in the 1940’s, are too much for the average 10-year-old to appreciate. While the book was a delight to read, I don’t yet want to explain the meanings of “the claps” or “bear-lesk”. This brings me to a portion of the book which I found thoroughly amusing.
When No Good, his adoptive brother with a bombshell of a secret, and a neighborhood girl decide to take the bus across town to the negro jail and investigate whether their friend had indeed been arrested for the murder that had gripped the town, No Good finds himself explaining how he even knew where to find the negro jail in the first place:
“How you even know about this place?”
“I helped my Uncle Travis take some trash to the dump a while back, and he told me all about it. Said it used to be a house of bear-lesk until the cops made it a jail for Negros.”
“Bear-lesk?” Josh asked.
“Uncle Carl said it was like a full service hotel.” I explained. “First class, I reckon.”
“How come they built a hotel next to the dump?”Jeannie asked.
I shrugged. “Guess that’s why it’s a jail now.”
I like this book. I like the setting, the fact that the author chose a class of people and a way of life that is largely neglected by fiction writers. I like that a book with such sensitive themes, written with young readers in mind, is done tastefully and yet without shrinking back or sugar coating.
It’s worth a look.
Content advisory: Race related themes and terminology, boyhood mayhem and the violence which sometimes accompanies it (or used to before we decided in our infinite wisdom that boys should be neutered). Brief reference to sexual relations between No Good’s parents. Again, matter of fact and tastefully presented.