“The Ballad of Black Tom”: Book Review

I made myself a promise that once the semester ended, I would get back into reading. The first item on the list was finishing the 2016 novella by Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom. I finished it on Saturday afternoon…. and it was one of the strangest stories I read in a long time.

“Ballad” centers around 20-year-old street hustler, Tommy Tester, and 1924 New York – specifically, Red Hook and Harlem. Tester plays the guitar (badly) and sings a handful of tunes (badly) for enough money to support him and his dad.

On one of his trips to the streets, he carried his trusty guitar case but inside, there was a little yellow book. That book belonged to the reclusive, very powerful, and maybe-more-than-human? Ma Att. Tester is to deliver the book but he takes one page from it. This action gets him noticed by forces that he would do well to avoid: Ma Att’s allies, the Police, and most importantly, Robert Suydam.

Robert Suydam commissions Tester to play at an upcoming party, and Suydam is going to pay very well. Tester accepts… and begins the journey of a lifetime.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling pf the H.P. Lovecraft story, The Horror at Red Hook, but from the point of the black character, Tommy Tester. Tester’s viewpoint is a window into the racism of the 1920s and of the different neighborhoods of New York, but not with the in-your-face racism that Lovecraft’s story apparently had.

This is a great story, even without the horror element; think of it (in that sense) as a pretty good mystery novella. If you are a fan of horror stories, especially Lovecraftian mythos, you’ll enjoy this story. For starters, it is much simpler to read than the few Lovecraft stories I’ve attempted to read. The characters in LaValle’s story feel pretty vivid, especially Tester, Suydam, and Officer Malone. Suydam, in particular, showed quite a few layers o his character: philanthropist, benefactor, superiority, hiding something, and… well, you will have to read it to see what else all of these characters bring to the table.

“Ballad” is just shy of 150 pages and is an easy read, in terms of writing style. I managed to finish 115 pages in a little over a day. There are a few twists and turns, including a death that I wasn’t as sympathetic to, as one of the main characters was (he pushed the wrong buttons with a shooting and set most of the story’s events in motion). This was an enjoyable novella!

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