Witness, Jamel Brinkley's new volume of short stories, is as awe-inspiring and accomplished a collection as his first, A Lucky Man. Brinkley shares my shelf with the greats: Stuart Dybek, Alice Munro, William Trevor, and Edward P. Jones.
Witness is both the title of the last story and an umbrella term for the collection as a whole where, in many of the stories, one family member is at the center and sees most clearly. As in his first collection, the community Brinkley writes about is the Black middle class in Brooklyn and the Bronx where trouble comes from many directions.
What is so compelling about this writer? Let's look at one of my favorites in Witness, "Bartow Station." It's a first-person narrative from the point of view of an unnamed man who is probably in his mid to late twenties. The story opens in a locker room at UPS where our narrator, who's just been hired, is being trained by an older driver named Jimmy who is gruff, but not begrudging of advice.
Our narrator has arrived to work in the shoes he wore "the last time I set foot in a church. In memory of my cousin. Troy" (181).
His shoes are the first things Jimmy notices. "For real, get you some new shoes, quick, or your feet are fucked. I mean, they gonna end up fucked anyway, but still—" (180)
Jimmy's statement implies permanence. He assumes the narrator will settle into the job and deliver UPS packages for the rest of his life, but our man doesn't let a beat go by without setting him straight: "This is just a gig, man…I'm not here to collect a pension or anything." and Jimmy warns him, "lower your voice when you say some shit like that. People kill for these jobs" (181).
Those shoes are the first indication that Brinkley is working two floors, the surface and the basement. On the surface, the story is about our narrator's hook-up with Zoelle, a woman he meets at a shop where he makes deliveries, while the basement story, which unfolds in a piecemeal manner at the same time the surface story advances, is about Troy. And as the story of Troy slowly emerges, we start to understand something crucial about our narrator. He's not committed to daily life. Nothing touches him because he's not grounded, not in a job or a relationship because he's not grounded in himself. He can't even find appropriate shoes. And why not? The reader won't know the answer for another 16 pages, but the first clue that the basement exists is the name. This name will be dropped 4 more times in the next 10 pages, each time with a little more context surrounding it so that what's just a name takes shape as a teenage boy with certain habits by the end. The first casual mention of Troy tells us that he had to go to a church because of him. Most readers will suspect at once it was for a funeral. A few pages later we come to this stunning paragraph where we learn that they grew up together. Our narrator has just met Zoelle at the flower shop he makes deliveries to:
"She has baby locs, fuzzy sideburns, a gaze that won't flinch. The stormy hands of the eighth-grade girls who liked to play-fight with me and Troy in the parking lot after school—quick hands that sudden and seize the air—and I am waiting an especially long time for the delivery to be inspected on the Friday morning when those hands pluck a pink tea rose from a diamond-shaped dish on the counter and let it drop into my palm. The rose's stem, snapped, is just a couple of inches long" (183).
And here's another thing Brinkley does: the characters are identified as much by their gestures as their words There is Zoelle and her "stormy hands," Jimmy and his "massive head" that "tilts left and then right, as if his neck can't hold it" (181), our narrator with the grip that's too strong, too tight and frightens Zoelle. "`You're hurting me,' she repeats" (194).
The third clue about Troy comes on the next page when our narrator gets dressed for his first date. "The mirror shows I've already lost a few pounds in the August heat. Only one old T-shirt shows off my chest and shoulders the way I want. The jeans I put on sag too much off my ass, the style back when Troy and I were boys" (184).
So far, all the references to Troy suggest little more than a shared boyhood, but it's becoming clear that in everything our narrator does, Troy is a presence in our narrator's floating life. He tells Zoelle on their first date, after she makes a reference to his job, "Look, just so you know, I'm not trying to drive a delivery truck forever or anything" (187).
On another date, looking at street murals with Zoelle, he is reminded of the cartoons he and Troy would watch on Saturday mornings. This is the fourth clue, and it suggests a friendship that was closer to cohabitation. When our narrator goes to the bar Zoelle likes to frequent, "the din of the shabby bar—the manic disclosures and lustful intimations, the percussive sounds of wood and glass, the piped-in music seeping into the fissures of silence—brings me back to the summer when I was fifteen and Troy and I worked as waiters for tips and under-the-table cash at the restaurant his father co-owned on City Island" (190). That's the last clue we get, but for this one, the context is extended to describe what they would do after work on the island, the party boats they snuck onto, the cheap champagne they imbibed, their uninhibited dancing for the tourists. This is the final preparation for the story's climax when the narrator's past, his memories of Troy, and his present, his relationship with Zoelle, collide. The trouble starts when she takes him on a tour of a long disused tunnel in Brooklyn, and the constriction of the pathway, the closeness of the dirt walls, understandably cause terror in a man already trapped in the tombs.
And that brings me to another quality I admire. There are no easy solutions. The realizations a character may come to are qualified and don't lead to change. No one can step away from their past quickly or easily; they do it by degrees, if at all. But that's appropriate because it's also the way Brinkley constructs a story: lives are lived in layers of time; the present is haunted by the past, and in "Bartow Station" and another story in the volume, "Comfort," Brinkley uses the same method, a relentless trickle of memory. What makes these stories powerful is the slowness of this accretion as the unsettled past seeps into his characters' attempts to live in the present.
Brinkley, Jamel. Witness. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.