Page & Author

REVIEW of Sons by Alphonso Morgan

February 2005

Light Out of Darkness

In the legendary novel Another Country, penned by late literary giant James Baldwin, a downtrodden character by the name of Rufus Scott opens the story by making his way through New York City on a mission: he is going to commit suicide on the George Washington Bridge. His life is weighty and disgusting, and to him of no further use. He is, by his own assessment, so tired and fallen so low, that he hardly has the energy to be angry–and can barely lift his feet to shuffle his meaningless life to its own death.

He remembers a beautiful time where everyone knew him, when he was happy and in circulation, and in love. That powerhouse Baldwin possessed the literary moxie to kill off his intriguing protagonist 80-odd pages into the book is a testament to the author's talent, because even after his suicide, Rufus was so well written, he lives on through the book to its conclusion.

A similar scene unfolds in Sons, Alphonso Morgan's extraordinary debut novel, in which a character, like Baldwin's Rufus, is considering suicide–by hurling himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. This character is also angry, stuck under the heavy truths of his existence, and cannot see any alternative but ending his life. He is in love, he is not in love. He is ashamed of what he is, he is a proud young man. He is naive, he is insightful. He is indifferent, he is hopelessly passionate. He is imprisoned by his own construction that is himself. And is also imprisoned in Brooklyn.

Let it be said here and now that Sons is one of the best debut novels of the year! And it is largely, if not entirely, due to the overwhelming talent of newcomer Alphonso Morgan. In an instant he has single-handedly surpassed many contemporary novelists with ease. How else does one account for words bound together like lyrics, for symbolism so well constructed and so colorful and insightful that it is like attending a literary buffet? One is seduced by Morgan's careful craft and fluid use of vocabulary from the outset, the book reading like one continuous thought, with intent and direction and masterful execution.

Morgan does things the old-fashioned way, his writing as tumultuous as Baldwin's, as mature as Michael Cunningham's The Hours, and as dense as Toni Morrison's Love. It is intelligent and relentless. It is touching and engaging. One will pull back from this book for the briefest of moments to marvel that this is a debut novel. And although the story takes place in the age of Hip-Hop, Morgan sees fit not to dumb down his characters. For as self-destructive as they are, they are also analytical and heady.

Sons, however, is not without its issues. One is slightly less enamored with the story of the novel than the author's talent to convey it–particularly the ending. The characters are all sturdy, as they prowl in their mini-hells, and even Brooklyn itself (Morgan's valentine) has a demeanor of its own, bold and tough and beautifully described in its raw realness.

The novel takes place in the New York borough, and primarily follows the lives of unlikely lovers Sha and Aaron through a tortuous summer. Morgan's tightly controlled plot manages to hit a bump in the last act by some things left unclear and the introduction of a needless 11th hour character: distracting, long-winded, and a betrayal of Morgan's talent. Wisely, he returns to what he does well by the close of the book.

Still, there are passages like: He had been fool enough to believe that the shell he had always supposed his life to be did not have to exist. That the shatterproof husk of hiding and hunting and raw longing unfulfilled was not a lie. That perhaps there was a different kind of life for him now, peopled not by the phantom attachments of his youth, the fading best friends he had propped up like scarecrows along the emotional thoroughfares of his life, but by a real breathing heart-pounding sturdy Sha.

With words like these, any missteps are easily forgiven. While the satisfying and captivating Sons will not be Alphonso Morgan's best book, it is a great triumph when compared to other works offered in recent memory. We should all be on the lookout for Mr. Morgan's future endeavors. He is a rising star, and should be embraced as literature's next big thing. Baldwin would approve.