Overactive Imagination Is an Underrated Thing: Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott

I’m not going to lie — “Hell of a Book” is (or was for me) a hella hard read. But it’s an important one. A touching, sometimes funny one. And a very, very good one.

Much like “The Other Black Girl,” I’m reading this book with some very privileged eyes. While TOBG settles into a fictional suspense-filled rhythm, Jason Mott’s latest is decidedly realistic and tragic and ultimately, touching.

“Hell of a Book”‘s main character is the author of “Hell of a Book” — and while we as readers don’t learn much about that book’s plot, we are invited into the author’s world as he tackles a nationwide book tour. And this author is in 15 kinds of pain.

His main vices as a method of escape? Alcohol and an overactive imagination. It’s his “condition” as he calls it, and he’s had it since his father passed away when he was a young boy. On tour, his imagination manifests itself in the form of a young Black boy, Soot. Beginning with a conversation at a hotel breakfast bar and lasting through to the book’s final scene, the author and Soot try to both teach and learn from each other about their role in the world, its inherent unfairness and how to press on despite the challenges they face every day.

Readers will naturally wonder — is the author Soot? Is Soot the Black boy the nation is suddenly mourning while the author is city-hopping? What is real? What is imagined? Now that I’ve finished it, I would caution against letting your own mind wander too far down that path, because the larger message comes from the author and Soot’s relationship, and it likely doesn’t matter how they are, or even if they are, related to each other in a logical way our mind can easily understand. Because the answer is yes. Because the beauty of imaginations and coping mechanisms is that you can make something or someone whatever you want it to be. And that is how the author gets through his days.

I’ve had a run of books with a strong social commentary make their way into my queue lately, and “Hell of a Book” is nothing if not 300+ pages of just that. In a day and age when common sense is a rare commodity, and it’s really easy turn off and tune out from people worried about the wrong thing, because you just don’t have the energy to raise a stink, “Hell of a Book” is a sober, sad, beautifully written reminder that for people of color, turning off and tuning out is never really an option. Even with a really good imagination.

Shortlisted this year for a National Book Award, it is the last two pages that for me, are why it should win. Pick it up.

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