DG MARTIN COLUMN: North Carolinian wins coveted National Book Award

Published 11:56 am Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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What’s the biggest news in our state’s literary circles?

On Nov. 17, Jason Mott won the National Book Award for Fiction. No North Carolinian had won that coveted award since Charles Frazier was recognized for “Cold Mountain” in 1997.

Mott won this year for his fourth novel, “Hell of a Book.”

D.G. Martin

He grew up in Bolton, a small town in Columbus County in southeastern North Carolina, near Lake Waccamaw, the son of hard-working Black parents. He graduated from UNC-Wilmington and earned a master’s degree there.

Here is how award judges described the book:

“With audacity and invention, Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book weaves together three narrative strands — an unnamed author, a boy named Soot, and a figure known as The Kid— into a masterful novel. In a structurally and conceptually daring examination of art, fame, family and being Black in America, Mott somehow manages the impossible trick of being playful, insightful, and deeply moving, all at the same time. A highly original, inspired work that breaks new ground.”

The book’s early pages introduce one of the main characters, Soot, a nickname he gained from his dark black skin. We read about him as a 10-year-old being harassed and teased and causing Soot to wish that he were invisible. Before the book ends, the reader learns how Soot has experienced horrible effects of racism, including losing his father to unprovoked police gun fire.

In a separate plotline, we learn from the author-narrator that he is on a book tour for a new book, also titled “Hell of a Book.” He catches our attention when we first meet him running naked through the halls of a hotel at 3:30 in the morning, being chased by the husband of a woman with whom he had been making love. He also meets someone who could be a serious love interest. The book tour part of the book, Mott says, started out as a separate book.

We also meet The Kid, an imaginary figure who appears in the narrator’s mind on a regular basis. The Kid’s formidable presence is evidence that the narrator has some severe mental-health challenges.

Through Soot’s experiences, Mott forces readers to confront the continuing horrors of racism in our society. This description of racial injustice could have been a stand-alone book, separate from the narrator’s book tour experiences. Readers can judge whether they prefer the book divided or, as it is, in a single volume.

Mott’s frontal attack on racism surprised me because his early writing avoided racial topics.

In 2013 when I read “The Returned,” his debut novel set in a place like Columbus County about dead people returning to life, I was surprised that race and racism played no part in his book.

He told me and others that he did not want to be known as a Black writer or one who tackled racism head on. He wanted to write good stories, not descriptions of racial prejudice.

I thought this was a positive and wrote about his characters, “To put it bluntly, you cannot tell the whites from the blacks. It [the book] is race neutral. Mott’s fictional characters then are judged by the content of their character, just the way Martin Luther King dreamed.”

But “Hell of a Book” is a turnaround. It confronts racism and all its violent horrors.

Why the change?

Mott says he has become impatient as he tries to understand what it means to be Black in America today. He is tired of being neutral. He decided, after avoiding the topic in his first three books, to “turn the lens around and head on into it.”

However you feel about Motts’ turn, you have to celebrate the national attention for a fine North Carolina author.

D.G. Martin hosted “North Carolina Bookwatch” for more than 20 years. The concluding program featuring Bland Simpson airs Dec. 7 at 8 p.m.