The Ballad of Black Tom
by Victor LaValle
published February 2016
From Goodreads: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.
Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?
I first came across this book while reading an article about standalone fantasy novels on BookRiot, and after seeing that it was one of NPR’s best books of 2016 and was on shortlists and finalists for awards like the Hugo and Nebula, I decided to give it a try. When I picked it up at the library I was surprised to see how short it is- just 149 pages. But LaValle packs a lot of story into those pages, and he doesn’t need a single word more to complete the story.
In Jazz Age New York (1920), Charles Thomas Tester has learned a few things in his twenty years- that life is unfair, that life as a black man is especially unfair, and that you have to take care of your own because no one is going to help you out. He knows he’s at the bottom of every power structure in the city, and he knows there’s nothing he can do about it. So he hustles and takes odd jobs to keep food on his table and a roof over his father’s head.
And so it goes until two of his side jobs collide and keep colliding until Charles Thomas Tester reaches his breaking point and he realizes that the world around him isn’t just indifferent to his plight, it actively hates him. When he’s offered a chance to change that dynamic, he leaps at the opportunity.
“I bear a hell within me,” Black Tom growled. “And finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.”
– Victory LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom
There are two other major characters in this book, but to discuss them very much would spoil the story. Suffice it to say that they are white men- a wealthy dabbler in the black arts and a policeman who thinks he’s doing the right thing. They both imagine themselves to be high up in New York’s food chain. They’re white men, after all, and with either money or authority, why shouldn’t they see themselves as better than the rabble around them? This naive, racist perspective leaves them both woefully unprepared for the dark forces that lurk just beyond the range of human perspective. And it’s their own foolish actions that lead to doors being opened that should have remained closed.
Like any book worth the paper it’s printed on, the issues at the heart of The Ballad of Black Tom speak to more than just the time period it’s set in. Police violence against the black community, fear of immigrants and the cultures and religions they bring, and Authority’s sense that it can blithely walk all over the Little Guy and expect no repercussions are all issues that resonate as strongly in 2017 as they did in 1920.
There are more than a few whispers of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos in this story, but it’s the fallout from pushing a man beyond his limits that makes this story unsettling. We can easily dismiss the idea that ‘dead Cthulhu waits dreaming’, but we can’t dismiss the fact that ordinary people can pushed into doing monstrous things. It happens every day.