Book review – Buck

25 Jul

I think I need to set up an extra page – or a new site to accommodate posts on books’n’plays!

This post is about a book shortly to be published (August 20th). I’ve had a pre-publication copy – so the quid pro quo is that I review it. No problem because I really enjoyed reading it – and putting my thoughts together.

It is the mark of good writing when an author can transport readers into another place and make them curious about the unfamiliar.

In his memoir Buck, (to be published next month by Spiegel and Grau) M.K. Asante managed to transport a fifty-something, middle class, white Englishman to the streets of North Philadelphia in the 1990s as experienced by a smart but disaffected young black man.

The journey was not always comfortable but was undoubtedly worthwhile.

Firstly the reader has to tune in to the vocabulary and rhythms of the street talk of the time and place and then get accustomed to the aggression, misogyny and criminality that too often is associated with it.

Malo Asante was born in Zimbabwe to American parents – which even in Philadelphia must have made him slightly exotic. In addition he was born into his community’s cultural intelligentsia with his father a high-profile academic and his mother a dancer/choreographer. Today he is following in their footsteps but this memoir recalls a period when his life appears to have come close to going off the rails.

Part of the tale is the fracturing of his family unit due to the breakdown of his parents’ relationship, the mental ill-health of his sister and depression of his mother and a revered elder brother who did not have his younger sibling’s luck and wound up in an Arizona jail at 17 for having sex with a minor.

M.K Asante certainly doesn’t glamourise the ghetto (indeed his descriptions of crack addicts are enough to make you wince) though he certainly uses it to powerful literary effect. It is hard to imagine how someone with the intelligence and sensitivity his writing displays could really have come so close to screwing up his life. Nevertheless, it is the description of how he fell into a downward spiral involving guns, drugs and casual nihilism that grips the reader. The passages in which his girlfriend tries to suggest that another, better, life is possible are very powerful.

I am in no position to know whether the account is sensationalist but the writing does show a sense of authenticity – of what was perceived by those present.

Mr Asante describes, eloquently, his dissatisfaction with the failings of the (private) school to which his parents sent him at the start of his memoir. He is also sharp in the critique of the Philadelphia (public) school system in which he found himself after his parents split up. And then, in a very American way, describes how, a (private) ‘alternative school’ helped him turn things around and find his calling as a writer.

This part of the memoir is where he started to lose a little of my sympathy. While displaying compassion and empathy with others less fortunate, I was left wondering how much Mr Asante’s problems were those of a latter-day black Holden Caulfield – the wobbles of a fairly privileged adolescent.

But before I seem churlish, it’s worth putting on record that this book deserves a wide readership, capturing something of the feelings of a clever but confused and unhappy adolescent who seems to have grown to be a talented and successful adult.


One Response to “Book review – Buck”


  1. Review Molefi K. Asante - Buck: a Memoir - January 17, 2014

    […] Off topic: Book review – Buck […]

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