Hardcover, 336 pagesPublished May 29th 2018 by Atria Books
It’s 1968 when fourteen-year-old Huey Fairchild begins high school at Claremont Prep, one of New York City’s most prestigious boys’ schools. His mother had uprooted her family from their small hometown of Akersburg, Georgia, a few years earlier, leaving behind Huey’s white father and the racial unrest that ran deeper than the Chattahoochee River.
But for our sharp-tongued protagonist, forgetting the past is easier said than done. At Claremont, where the only other nonwhite person is the janitor, Huey quickly realizes that racism can lurk beneath even the nicest school uniform. After a momentary slip of his temper, Huey finds himself on academic probation and facing legal charges. With his promising school career in limbo, he begins examining his current predicament at Claremont through the lens of his childhood memories of growing up in Akersburg during the Civil Rights Movement—and the chilling moments leading up to his and his mother’s flight north.
With Huey’s head-shaking antics fueling this coming-of-age narrative, the story triumphs as a tender and honest exploration of race, identity, family, and homeland.
Malcolm Hansen’s debut novel They Come in All Colors is a satirical narrative worthy of Paul Beatty’s stamp of approval. By that I mean it’s obvious that this book was either inspired or nurtured in some way by the Man Booker Prize-winning Beatty, if not both, and his style is so evident here that there were times this novel could have been written by the same hand. (He is even thanked in Color’s acknowledgements.) For those of you who follow my reviews, you’ll recall that I couldn’t stand Beatty’s award-winning The Sellout and marked it DNF, but just because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree doesn’t mean it may not taste different.
They Come in All Colors is the story of one boy’s realization that the color of his skin does make a difference one long summer when the Freedom Riders come to his small town and the status quo around him is thrown into upheaval. Meet Huey, the smart-mouthed eight-year-old son of a white peanut farmer and a “mulatto’’ woman. Because of his Caucasian features and his close relationship with his father, Huey has always been allowed to pass as white, but when racial tensions erupt, resulting in protests, sit-ins, riots and the violent death of someone close to his family, the facts of life are very quickly called into question between this couple who cannot legally wed in the South and their son who finds himself banned from the “white” swimming pool and called n*gger for the first time.
One of the more effective devices used within these pages is satire. In fact, really, the entire premise of the novel is satirical, but I appreciated Hansen’s wielding of it here and found it to be far more useful and self-evident than Beatty displayed in The Sellout. Here, that humorous device had more meaning and thus resonated louder and longer for me. Case in point, Huey encounters the most ridiculous conversations with his parents as they both try to explain to him why he isn’t colored though his mother is black. They tell him he’s white with a tan – an ironic notion in and of itself in 1960s South Georgia:
Huey, listen to me. Your mother’s what’s known in the scientific community as a phenotypic anomaly. Okay? Someone of unknown morphology. A racial enigma—something so new they don’t have a name for it yet. You watch Wild Kingdom, right? Well, it’s like a newly discovered animal that they haven’t figured out where to put it in the classification system yet. Okay? So it’s pointless to even bother asking. Because—well—the truth is that if people can’t agree, we might never know… At the end of the day, you’re just going to have to accept that even if she is what you think she might be—which she isn’t—her being one wouldn’t make you one. Okay? You’re just going to have to accept that you’re different. That’s all there is to it.
**SPOILER** They also lie to him about the tragic death of their family friend and field hand, whose family has worked for the Fairchilds for three generations, when he is violently beaten to death for his part in being a leading figure in the riots when the Freedom Riders come to town. His parents both insist that he simply fell from a ladder by accident though Huey questions this rendition of events several times. **END OF SPOILER**
Though the start of this book was far too similar in tone to The Sellout, which means it too almost got DNFd, I pushed through a bit further and found that Hansen showed real dexterity with the metaphors and analogies that abound in this narrative. The imagery of the South is realistic and comes off nearly as oppressive within these pages as it did in real life. One of the better metaphors comes when Huey tries to set his pet cat free after the violence in his town starts to come to a head; he makes a very clear parallel, though he himself does not know or understand it, between the release from the bondage of slavery just a few short generations before and his releasing of his pet into the wild:
Having surrendered Snowflake to the bitter wild, I decided that I wanted her back. I knew in my heart that she wasn’t ready to be set free but I’d done it anyway. I could see that she wasn’t sure what to do with all that freedom, that it was too much for her little brain to comprehend. All that freedom being dumped on her all at once like that. I should probably have tested it out by giving her teaspoon-sized doses of freedom first. Perhaps let her run free in the den to start. What had I been thinking?
Then, of course, there are the lovely and impactful nuggets of truth as Huey’s self-realization of his and his family’s status in the world around them continues snowballing – as he realizes that schools are segregated and that he is the “last person in town to discover the truth” about who he is. They come faster and harder in the second half of the novel as pretenses begin to be stripped away and the threshold for denial becomes shallower and shallower:
When I asked Mom who in his right mind would choose to be the descendant of a slave if given a choice, she gave me a contemptuous look.
You don’t have a choice.
Don’t be silly. Of course I do. We all have choices. Everything is a choice.
She called me, of all things, a disgrace to my race. I asked what she was referring to, precisely. Only the week before, she was peddling the idea of the whole concept of race as a sham concocted by a few eighteenth-century white men with powdered hair to more conveniently consolidate power, and now here I was, not having even had time to shit out the food I’d been eating at the time, come to find out that I was betraying it.
While we’re on the topic of the second half of They Come in All Colors, now’s as good a time as any to say that the latter fourth or so of the novel offered too many holes in the narrative for me to forgive and inspired more questions for me than satisfying answers. AND while we’re on the topic of my pet peeves with this book, now’s also as good a time as any to point out the added GLARING problem that there were no quotation marks used in this novel whatsoever. Normally, this narrative tool wouldn’t be a problem, but combined with the ramblingly verbose chunks of dialogue and the use of long chapters and thick, hulking narrative blocks on every page, traditional formatting of dialogue would have been a welcome reprieve to break up the pages and make this novel seem like a faster read. By the time I got to the middle of They Come in All Colors I was honestly halfway exhausted from wading through the waters of prose and checking the page count to see how close I was to the end. (spoiler: To my dismay, I was nowhere close to it.)
Yet, this novel did more good for me than it did harm. It called into question not only the lies we tell ourselves to cope but the lies adults tell children and parents tell their offspring to maintain their innocence. What good is the façade – what’s the point of holding onto a false innocence just a few weeks or months or short years longer – if the inevitable realization only hits harder and is more damaging than having understood it from the start? Because then a child must also cope with the fact that not only has their existence been a lie in some shape, form or fashion but that the adults around them are imperfect beings – who lie and cannot always be trusted to tell the truth. In Western civilization, we raise our kids with lies as a fundamental part of their upbringing – tooth fairies and Santa Clauses and excuses for the way the world is. I’ve never thought that was a productive or practical tool of parenting, and Hansen definitely manages to expose the detriment of shielding and coddling kids from what the real world holds. For that, I applauded him.
While the ending of the novel was too abrupt for me to find a ton of fulfillment in it, I did appreciate the nuggets of truth that Huey grows aware enough to impart on the reader –
I was being mocked and maligned on a daily basis for having the gall to use the color of my skin to gain advantage where it concerned getting into Claremont, and here people like Zuk pulled shit like that all the time and weren’t even aware of it, much less feeling pangs of guilt about it.
– and that his mother, Peola, finally finds the strength to impart on him after nearly a decade of insisting to him that he was white:
I’m going to tell you this once, sweetheart, and then I’m never going to tell it to you again. So listen well. Any person you know who has not had a family member enslaved is at a two-hundred-fifty-year advantage over you. Okay? Not the other way around. You must understand that one simple fact. You have ancestors—blood relatives, real people, connected to you by blood and history—who were enslaved, who had their families, language, labor, freedom, possessions, and identity taken from them by force and used to the advantage of everyone you see around you right here, right now. That is, everyone but us. So do not ever let anyone talk to you like you’re some goddamned drain on society. Ever! That would be like scorning the man who has built your house for not owning one himself. That’s just wrong. The only thing you oughta be worried about asking any of them is what the hell they have to show for the last two hundred fifty years of their advantage. And I don’t care if for those two hundred fifty years their ancestors were in Europe or Asia or Russia or on Mars or wherever, because I can guarantee you that they were not in chains.
For these dazzling moments of truth and forthrightness, I forgave many of the novel’s other sins. I recommend this novel to lovers of Paul Beatty’s work. You can think of Hansen as Paul Beatty lite. 😁 And I’d also recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a cutting parody of historical events or an incisively sardonic look at the color line in America. You can always count on me to reach for a novel that offers both social commentary and satire all in the same sitting, so I’m happy to have added this book to my list of reads for this year. All in all, Hansen’s debut offered bite and wit to account for what it lacked (mostly a more streamlined formatting and a more punching conclusion) and for that I give 3.5 stars. ***
*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.