Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
A very interesting story told by poems that kept me turning pages. And with some very interesting social commentary.
Synopsis from GoodReads:
A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he?
As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually used his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator?
Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.
And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.
I don’t necessarily believe in fate – but I read this book an hour before I saw Black Panther. I don’t know how many people who read my blog will have seen the new Marvel film, but I gotta say: there are some serious thematic parallels.
I’m going to try not to spoil either work but be aware that I’m going to be discussing both in at least broad strokes.
With that out of the way. Let’s start with the poetry.
I said in my review of the princess saves herself in this one that poetry for me is about an emotional response. And I’m not sure if I don’t have the background or what, but the poems in Long Way Down were very hit or miss for me, emotionally speaking. I was invested in the story the whole time, in the pieces that slowly got revealed with each additional character’s appearance, but I wasn’t emotionally invested.
Still, while the emotional evocation wasn’t always there for me, the changing format did work. It helped me keep track of who was speaking, reinforced the atmosphere, and just generally added to the characters’ emotions.
The characters were an interesting mix. The ones who spoke and the ones present only by description alike. Together they show a neighborhood, a city, that is so far out of my experience. I’m grateful for that, but I think that might also have made it difficult for me to truly grasp some of the nuances. Still, the different ways they interacted with each other and with Will I thought was very well written. I believed that all of them were real people.
And the setting! The majority of Long Way Down takes place over about a minute-long ride down an elevator, from floor 7 to the Lobby. The fact that the novel is in verse helps with the claustrophobic feeling, of being stuck in one place and forced to confront what’s in you – and in there with you.
Now, the main thematic reason that I connected this book to the film Black Panther is the idea of vengeance. The cycle of it, to be more specific. Will wants to kill the man who killed his brother, and he thinks he knows who it is and how to kill them. But we find out from some of the other characters in the novel that mistakes can lead to bad ends – and success with killing the right murderer of your friend/family member can also lead to a bad end. Regardless, the idea of a cycle of vengeance is present in both works – and is answered in several different ways, thanks to both works having decent-sized ensembles.
In the end, Long Way Down is about how a culture and a society inculcates a cycle of vengeance. It provides a way out, but that way out comes with its own price. We don’t know, in the end, about a lot of things. We are left to decide for ourselves what happens, whether Will is right or not about who murdered his brother, and how to move forward from here.
In the end, I’m not sure how to rate Long Way Down. It’s not poetry in the same way that the princess saves herself in this one is – it’s a novel told in verse format as compared to emotionally compelling poems. So the fact that I didn’t get the emotional evocation out of every poem – is that important for this one? Or should I focus on the thoughts it’s evoked in me, thoughts that are going to stay with me for a long time?
If I’m rating this as poetry, then I should be knocking 0.5 to 1 star off my rating. But in the end, it’s not poetry – it’s verse. That might be splitting hairs, but if we’re allowed to get into tiny little subgenres in speculative fiction, I can do it here, too.
4 out of 5 stars. This is a powerful story about the decisions we make and the idea of cycles. How to follow them and how to break them. Definitely highly recommended.