by Kenji Jasper
Reviewed by Kalisha Buckhanon
If you haven’t read Kenji Jasper’s early novels prior to finding his latest Nostrand Avenue, then don’t just yet. The wide-eyed protagonist in his classic debut Dark or sleeper Snow will prove jarring, incongruent contrasts to the wiser Jamison “Kango” Watts at center of Nostrand Avenue: a merciless look at individual and societal revolt in a futuristic dystopia Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, collapses into.
Nostrand Avenue is a slim book but not a fast read. Its protagonist manages nine lives in 15 years, from 2005 to 2020. Kango’s only anchors through this whirlwind are a chronic pine for a lost love and a devout yoga practice. Once his secret “fixer” street profession forces him in exile to D.C., he opens a soul food fusion restaurant called “Queen and Country.”
However, a divinely-ordered assignment jettisons him back to street life when his old yoga teacher Jelly reappears to lead him out of mundane D.C. life into a lucrative 6-figure assignment. He must make it to London and back, plus face old Brooklyn enemies, for it to pay off. The final pages boil over with existential crisis, determined ghosts and painful admissions.
Like many Blacks once the only ones willing to invest in architecturally-important but crime-ridden Bed-Stuy, Kango leaped from rooming house resident to vintage brownstone owner by sheer luck. As a twentysomething afflicted with Wanderlust, he wins a high-stakes backroom poker game in a bar. His opponent, the legendary old man Alexander, is so ashamed he hands over keys to his manor in exchange for Kango to never show his face at the bar again.
This comeuppance did not follow a friendly path fit for broker ads drawing Millenials and yuppies to colonize Bed-Stuy by the day. Instead Jasper paints Kango’s abode as a hollow, lonely crucible. His ability to live off tenant rent turns his idle time into the devil’s workshop. His past life as a neat man of letters gives him the manner and language to stay above suspicion in gun trading and money laundering schemes.
Kango’s biography up to then is irrelevant (an HBCU English degree, a stint writing for The Source, book deals). A torrid affair with a well-to-do but rebellious Jamaican dimepiece named Jenna seems to wipe Kango’s memory of too much before her, except for maybe flashbacks to a mother “hitting me for looking like a man who left her behind.” This poisoned spiritual core invites malice to take root. No gesture illustrates this more than Kango’s use of his innocuous-looking yoga mat case to hide a cop’s shotgun he boosts cleverly.
Between all its chaotic shootouts and doomed flings, Nostrand Avenue adds to the anthropology of a traditionally Black neighborhood that, like Harlem, is now history vanishing before our eyes. Narrating as a wry factual second-person, because “it’s the only voice where you can bear to be honest with yourself,” Kango compulsively charts Bed-Stuy iconography and mileau.
Kango is briefed on many of his jobs in back of the fictitious Starving Artist Cafe, allusion to an unsung Bed-Stuy cultural renaissance that Biggie Smalls helmed in the 90’s. Fried chicken connoisseurs coexist harmoniously with vegan fanatics. As in any predominantly Black urban enclave, barber shops and hair salons both welcome and outcast denizens as its leaders see fit. And of course, so do liquor stores and churches, sometimes just doors from each other.
Kango’s Bed-Stuy is a virtual island always turning on a dime, from a protective oasis into a spectacular hell-hole in minutes. The combination of both in one book forces recollection of Morrison’s affectionately grotesque characters on one page and Donald Goines’ affectionately ruined characters on the next. Sometimes, they blend on the same page. Consider Khujo, one of few allies Kango can turn his back around:
“Khujo got her name by getting bit by a rabid dog back when she was seven. Some German shepherd that got slashed by a raccoon got loose on the ball courts off Halsey and damn near tore her leg off before some cop beat the thing to death with his nightstick. Khujo is pretty with big doe eyes and Hershey-colored skin. But you can’t focus on the femme underneath because of all the window dressing: the coarse fabric head wrap, the two scarification marks on the right side of her forehead, the hand-carved stars on her knuckles she did while she was in juvie for slashing another chick’s face with a “buck-fifty” box cutter. And there is what’s left of a Black & Mild cigar clutched between her teeth.”
There are so many more gems. “The Twins” are two sisters from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They make millions reading fortunes and investing from a business so respected Kango departs Brooklyn the day after they predict he absolutely must. Buster is a fiftysomething bartender and Gulf War vet. He ages in reverse, probably because nights spent on truck driving and armed robberies cleansed him of the war trauma. Beyond such admirable character sketches, Nostrand Avenue forces remembrance of sadly obscure Black pop culture and consideration of romantic love’s extinction in a technologically-enhanced but morally-debased society.
Nostrand Avenue is the first in a planned trilogy where Jasper’s subsequent versions will hopefully attend to both sides of one coin: optimistic good cop-types as well as unapologetic robber tropes who dominate this first installment, leaving readers with less balance to appreciate either choice. Several strong female characters come but go too soon, unable to expand into a full-blown sidekick Kango needs desperately on his lonely carousel of opportunistic ne’er-do- wells. Jenna and Jelly are formidable enough to do more than wait backstage in Kango’s mind.
Still, Nostrand Avenue proves its basic point: racism traumatizes and belittles Black men, women and communities. By the end, arsonists have torched many of Bed-Stuy’s historical landmarks, effectively symbolizing gentrification’s insidious function. When Kango returns to his old brownstone in 2020, the disorientation is disabling. He barely escapes an attempt on his life.
The book’s world is far ahead of current technological inventions limited to FaceTime, Alexa and driverless cars. A special group including Kango can connect on the basis of once invisible “auras”: classifications according to psychic and emotional intelligence. Kango is in a high Class #7, capable of sensing real danger and moving without being heard. He aims for yoga and clean eating to push him higher. Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman stalls in Class #3. It should be something to see what, beyond Bed-Stuy, Jasper places Kango up to next.
Kalisha Buckhanon is the author of the novels Solemn, Conception and Upstate. She was profiled by poet Tara Betts for the cover of Mosaic‘s Winter 2009 issue. Her next novel Speaking of Summer is forthcoming in Spring/Summer 2019.