Only the Strong by Jabari Asim
Reviewed by Julia Brown
In his debut novel Only the Strong, Jabari Asim has captured something plaintive and essential in his generous rendering of 1970s Gateway City, a fictional African-American Midwestern town still reeling from the devastation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. On its cover, Only the Strong declares itself “An American Novel;” in Asim’s pages, readers will recall the work of Ann Petrie, Stuart Dybek, John Edgar Wideman, and Sherwood Anderson—writers who have created nuanced portraits of vivacious American communities. Only the Strong comprises a trio of intertwining narratives, woven deftly together to form a sprawling tableau that is as entertaining as it is ambitious.
The protagonist of the novel’s first storyline is Lorenzo “Guts” Tolliver, a retired professional hitman struggling to distance himself from his violent past. A call from his former boss, Ananias Goode, plunges him back into a world of flamboyant, irrepressible sports figures, barbershop meet-ups, shady enforcer-types, and a mysterious death. Guts longs for a quieter, more secure existence, but as he reestablishes his connection with the Gateway City’s dark side, his old habits kick in, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend Pearl and jeopardizing his chance at stability. Guts, fenced in by his history and reputation, attempts the difficult work of reimagining his life.
The novel’s second storyline concerns Ananias Goode, long-time king of the local underworld, as he tries to become a legitimate businessman. Goode, a married man, is under the sway of both the changing times and his illicit affair with Artinces Noel, Gateway City’s intelligent, devoted pediatrician—a woman who has her own secrets. The third storyline involves the foster child taken in and mentored by Dr. Noel, Charlotte Divine, who goes off to college and begins a chaotic romance with a charismatic, troubled student. Charlotte comes of age traversing difficult emotional territory amidst an atmosphere of campus unrest and burgeoning black pride.
Across these storylines, repeated themes emerge: the conflict between the public and the private self, heartbreaking parental loss, turbulent grappling with desire and vulnerability. Early on in the novel, Jerome “Crusher” Boudreau declares to Guts Tolliver, “We all got to do shit that we don’t want to do. Got to squeeze the quiet moments in where we can.” This sentiment resonates throughout the novel as the protagonists yearn for their own “quiet moments,” navigating their particular predicaments, coping under the scrutiny of a watchful (sometimes too watchful) community. The most pressing dilemmas are internal ones: Where will their appetites lead them? How much happiness will they allow themselves?
Only the Strong is historical yet surprisingly contemporary in feel, written in an unadorned, direct prose style. Readers were first introduced to Gateway City (a fictional reinvention of the author’s native St. Louis) in Asim’s acclaimed story collection, A Taste of Honey (2010); many of the characters and locales from that story collection return in Only the Strong. The setting is drawn with a dense vibrancy that invokes nostalgia for a kind of collective life that has all but vanished from contemporary American cities. United by more than the streets of their neighborhood, Gateway City’s lively personalities experience moments of humor, joy, and friendship, even as the world they know is disappearing.
If the novel suffers at all, it’s from a slight unevenness of tone: Only the Strong oscillates, sometimes uneasily, between crime novel and character study. Each protagonist is complex and compelling enough to inhabit a novel entirely of his or her own—there is a layer of individual character depth that the speed of the pacing doesn’t quite allow Asim to achieve. The novel, however, does not move exclusively via the force of individual character—far more important are the varying, enduring relationships between the characters, and their allegiance to city in which they live.
Only the Strong is an engaging read. In its final pages it reminds us that, even as we exist in our own individual separate worlds, we are all connected.
Julia Brown is a Richmond, Virginia native. A Kimbilio Fellow, she recently earned her MFA from the University of Houston, where she won the Inprint Robert J. Sussman Prize for Fiction. She is working on her first collection of short stories.