Victor LaValle’s Slapboxing With Jesus Book Review by Jessica Thompson

slapboxing with jesus by victor lavalleAs a beginning fiction writer, I find it beneficial to read my favorite authors’ bodies of work in their entirety, from beginning to end, to see how their writing evolved over time. That is what I’m doing with Victor LaValle right now. I learned of LaValle last year when my professor Ira Sukrungruang assigned The Ecstatic in a multi-genre course he created called “Writing The Body.” (I’ll probably write about The Ecstatic in a future issue of weirderary, but for now, know that it is a novel following a mentally ill twenty-something man in NYC.)

Released in 1999, Slapboxing With Jesus was LaValle’s first published book and is his only short story collection. Many of the characters in his short stories feel familiar and similar to the people we see in The Ecstatic; both books take place largely in New York City so the setting is familiar as well. The biggest similarity that stuck out to me while reading this book is that LaValle was already using the dialogue style he employs in The Ecstatic–a dash at the beginning of each new line of dialogue and no quotation marks.

I appreciate LaValle’s dialogue style choice for a few reasons. First, it is a style risk that requires confidence. I can only imagine how many people tried to “correct” this punctuation quirk and tell LaValle to drop it. He had to persist with his vision through that feedback. Second, it’s unusual. The lack of expected quotation marks heightens the attention I pay to the text as I’m reading dialogue because I’m trying to figure out what’s going on and what he’s going for. Third, it’s a wonderful way to use a technical aspect of the writing to further develop the character. The lack of quotation marks blurs the line between dialogue, description, and interiority. We don’t always know which words the protagonist is hearing and which he is thinking, which is perfect because in many instances the character himself probably also lacks this awareness.

Thinking about how to review Slapboxing With Jesus stumped me. It is weird and it lets you know it’s weird right away. The first sentence of the first story (“raw daddy”) is, “The next morning I was still scratching my nuts, for hours; in the afternoon I called Lianne; I was fiending.” The story is about young men chasing women. The second story (“ghost story”) begins with the protagonist peeing in a jar and placing it in his closet next to several other jars of his urine.

Approaching this review also caused me to reflect on our vision for weirderary. Many of the characters and events in Slapboxing With Jesus are weird because of an implied mental illness. That the characters are black and low-income adds to the originality of the stories. I definitely didn’t want to risk looking like I was pointing at mentally ill minority characters and saying, “Ha ha, look how weird they are!” I wanted to review this book in order to celebrate the unique characters in it, not make a mockery of them.

As I worried that the word “weird” in our journal name would cause this review to be read in the wrong light, a popular quote from Diane Arbus, one of my favorite photographers, came to mind. She said, “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Arbus photographed people who weren’t often photographed by professionals–nudists, interracial couples (in the 1960s), people with mental retardation, people with physical disabilities, drag queens. She loved them. Her photography celebrated them. The images emanate acceptance. She didn’t mean “freaks” as a pejorative, but as a fact; much of society viewed her photography subjects as freaks. For many of them, their “trauma” was being born in a world that largely did not accept them as normal.

I see weirderary operating similarly, as a vehicle to explore and celebrate the weird. Sometimes that will mean publishing and reviewing writing in nontraditional, experimental forms. Other times it will mean focusing on more traditional forms that contain unusual content or characters. A well-written story from the point of view of a mentally ill character is uncommon. It’s weird, and I mean that in the most loving way possible. I want to celebrate that weirdness. By doing so, my intention is acceptance and an amplification of voices not often heard, not derision. Over here, “weird” is a badge of honor.

Arbus has another, less famous quote that I also enjoy: “My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” My vision for weirderary is that we’re just a few writers wanting to go where we’ve never been, using the innocence and lack of self-consciousness of a child. When we see something out of the ordinary that draws us in, we will explore it, whether it’s a mentally ill character, an unexpected dialogue style, or, in LaValle’s case, the intersection of both.

Jessica Thompson is a fiction writer from Chicago. Her writing has been published in revolver and The EEEL. She is an editor of weirderary. (website, twitter, instagram)