Minimalist novel relevant to our times
Reviewed in the United States on 23 June 2020
The fallout and protests following police choking George Floyd to death in Minnesota has consumed social media for the last week, but it had only just started when I read Tyler Johnson Was Here. But let’s be real, police brutality against Black people is so common that if I’d read this book at any other time, it would have overlapped with another case. Last month, it was Ahmaud Arbery’s death (which, admittedly, was caused by a retired cop and his son, not an active cop). In March, it was Breonna Taylor, shot 8 times in her own home by police during a no-knock raid. In Ahmaud’s case, it took his death’s footage getting out three months later just to get his killers arrested and charged!
I don’t have to tell anyone how messed up it is that we have to release the footage of someone’s death to even possibly get them justice, retraumatizing every Black person who sees the footage. That’s exactly the situation Marvin Johnson is put through when a cop kills his brother and a young woman catches it all on camera.
Marvin and Tyler are twins, but they’re very different boys. Marvin aced his SATs and he’s got strong interest from MIT; Tyler just started selling drugs for a local gang to bring in some money for their family since their dad is in jail for illegal narcotics possession and capital murder (and, according to Marvin, it’s a wrongful conviction). Where Marvin capitulates when threatened by police, Tyler challenges them. Tyler’s death doesn’t happen for about half the book, so readers get time to experience him and feel the kind of loss Marvin and his mom feel when he dies.
The palpable grief Tyler’s family feels is the strongest part of the novel by far. When his mom and brother worry themselves sick over Tyler’s disappearance, leave an empty place for him at the table, and spread out his ashes, the emotion of it all grabs at the part of you that hurts from losing someone. It’ll almost certainly bring you to tears.
The same subtleties of emotion are nowhere to be found where the police are concerned, which is just fine. Yes, there are cops who aren’t complete pieces of garbage. For instance, Marvin and Tyler’s aunt Nicola. BUT. Some cops are just bad and racist, y’all. They’re not always complicated people. They’re just plain garbage and we shouldn’t idolize a broken, corrupt institution just because you met a single decent cop once. As of press time, Greg Doucette has gathered 259 instances and counting of police rioting and making brutal attacks against press members and protestors across the United States. JUST FROM THE LAST WEEK. As the author has said this book was inspired by events in his childhood and life, I’d be really awful to question a Black person’s lived experiences, especially as a white woman.
BLACK LIVES MATTER.
Tyler Johnson Was Here is something of a minimalist novel as well. Coles doesn’t linger on descriptions of places and people, which can leave you without a strong picture of Sterling Heights but also helps heighten the novel’s most emotional moments. Seeing as the deceased is Tyler’s brother and not one of his friends, the emotions hit differently than in its excellent contemporaries and read-alikes The Hate U Give and Dear Martin.
That minimalism also leaves a lot of unanswered questions as details are mentioned and then swept over. We know what Marvin and Tyler’s father is in prison for and Marvin asserts that the man was wrongfully convicted, but he doesn’t say anything else about it. Similarly, detectives only inform Tyler’s family of his death and discovery days after he disappeared, but he was shot dead the same night by a police officer and his mother reported him missing the next day. Did the cop that killed him hide his body, delaying discovery? Did police find him the same night and deliberately withhold Tyler’s body from his mother for a few days? I reread large portions of the book looking for these answers, but I couldn’t find them.
There’s a lot about Tyler Johnson Was Here that could be stronger had it sewn up those holes in the story, but it’s strongly written book that remains relevant two years after its publication. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was published last month. If you want a book that shows the police as they are–awful, racist, in service of the ruling class rather than in service of the people they “protect”, protected from censure by one another and their corrupt unions and their horrific contracts–this novel will get you fired up and may serve as a form of release.
Please donate to Black Lives Matter and bail funds across the nation if you can. If you can’t, find other ways to support protestors.
BLACK. LIVES. MATTER.
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