2021 National Book Award Winner

Jason Mott’s literary career began with two poetry collections. In 2013, he broke ground with his debut novel, The Returned. Even before the book was published, it was already optioned by ABC. It was eventually adapted into a television series with the title Resurrection. The series would run for two seasons. It was a searing and promising start to Mott’s career. He would publish two more novels – The Wonder of All Things (2014) and The Crossing (2018) – before catching an even bigger break. In June 2021, Mott published his fourth novel, Hell of a Book. It hit the ground running from the onset. It was picked by several prominent book clubs. It also earned Mott recognition from literary pundits and readers alike. The rest, they say, is history.

At the heart of Hell of a Book is an anonymous writer. The book follows him as he goes on a book tour to promote his debut novel. Born and raised in the Deep South, the unnamed protagonist used to work as a customer service representative in an equally anonymous city. He rose to prominence following the immediate success of his eponymous first novel, Hell of a Book. What he did not expect was that the novel would become a literary sensation, an instant bestseller. Because of the success of his work, he reluctantly found himself on a book tour that took him from the Midwest to San Francisco to Denver. As he traveled across the United States, he started learning the profound impact his book had on its readers, from a chauffeur to a radio announcer to the casual reader. The book was drawing praises from everyone. However, one question rises to the surface as the book moved forward: what was this novel about that it was inspiring readers all over?

The question would eventually find its answer towards the conclusion of the book. Before we get there, Mott regaled the readers with the details of the unnamed writer’s earlier life and his succeeding adventures in the world of publishing. Mott explored the predicaments faced by the customer service industry. It is an industry where stress abounded as callers seeking assistance tend to be driven by anger or are simply privileged: “Half the people working at Major Cell Phone Company are on antianxiety pills or antidepressants. And a significant number of them are gun owners.” Customers are always right? Perhaps not always. This, in turn, resulted in a high turnover rate which the industry tried to remedy by providing solutions, such as the introduction of the “culture crew” by the Company’s management. These solutions, however, tend to be stopgaps and rarely address the major concerns.

“I hate to tell you this, but nothing ever sounds right after a certain age, Kid. The older you get, the more you find it’s all just fallin apart, and, even worse than that, it’s always been falling apart – the past, the present, the future. They’re interchangeable when it comes to bad news. Tragedy and trauma are the threads that weave generations together.”

~ Jason Mott, Hell of a Book

The portion on the customer service industry does somehow feel disjointed from the rest of the novel; it came across as an afterthought, fleeting. But with the rise of the aforementioned industry, it was still a seminal subject nonetheless and opens further discussion on other similar subjects. In other parts of the novel, details of the unnamed author’s dalliances provided humor and lighter moments, contrasting the novel’s heavier subjects and themes. We learn about the media training that the nameless author had to undergo in preparation for his book tour. The book tour, on the other hand, was a madcap, a swirl of events and people, including a chauffeur, radio show hosts, casual readers, and even his publicist. The author found himself constantly confronted by the same question regarding his book. While he has a spiel prepared by his media team, the talking points barely scratch the surface. His readers expected more from him, something profound, something wise, and powerful. After all, his novel had such a profound impact.

Running parallel to the story of the book touring unnamed author is another storyline that followed a young Black boy in rural North Carolina. At school, he earned the nickname “Soot” because of his coal-black complexion. The opening sequence of the novel depicted how he was being trained by his parents on how to be invisible, how to be “The Unseen”: “In the corner of the small living room of the small country house at the end of the dirt road beneath the blue Carolina sky, the dark-skinned five-year-old sat with his knees pulled to his chest and his small, dark arms wrapped around his legs and it took all that he had to contain the laughter inside the thrumming cage of his chest.” Invisible from what, one might surmise? Why is being invisible, being unseen critical to his growth?

At a very young age, Soot was already being trained by his parents to be invisible with the end goal of preparing him for the world beyond the comfort of their home. His parents knew that beyond the doors of their home is a cruel world and early preparation will help mitigate any unforeseen events that their son might encounter. Rather than discussing the subject of racism and discrimination openly with their son, Soot’s parents chose the least scenic but the most imaginative way to inculcate this sensitive subject into their son. Invisibility, being unseen, was tantamount to safety. However, as Soot was growing older, it was increasingly palpable that there was something deeper, even bigger, that he was aspiring for, and it was not about remaining invisible. He wanted to be accepted for what he is, for who he is.

As the novel alternates between the two storylines, one seminal subject rises to the fore and becomes more pronounced: an examination of what it means to be Black in contemporary America. The more profound aspects of race were explored through the struggles of Soot and his journey of coming into terms with the realities of growing Black in the Deep South. Racism and discrimination were prevalent but it was not only from the White folks that Soot experienced bullying. Colorism has also pervaded the Black community and incidents of Black kids bullying their own were not unheard of. Soot’s experiences outside were contrasted by the love he was showered with within the ambit of his home. However, the protection they can provide their son also has its limits.

“I haven’t talked much about it much, but signing books is trickier than you might think. When you get right down to it, signing a book is akin to etching a piece of yourself into the soft stone of another person’s memory. When you sign something, people remember it. The item in question becomes a totem, a symbol of a moment in time that meant something but that will neer come again.”

~ Jason Mott, Hell of a Book

On the other side of the spectrum is the convergence of the nameless author’s path with a third primary character simply referred to as “The Kid”. “The Kid” was only 10-years-old but because of his dark complexion, he became the victim of both Black and White bullies. Unlike Soot, The Kid wants to live in the safety of his invisibility. The Kid whimsically appears wherever the author is: in the airport, in the back of a limo, or even at a hotel breakfast lounge. There seems to be something off with the Kid; only the author can see him. It was as if the Kid was conjured by the author’s mind. The author’s “delusions” were exacerbated by his condition. His overactive imagination makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and figments of his imagination. This was attributed to childhood trauma that the author was unable to recall. But it was this shared trauma that was the common denominator that united the author and the Kid. Their conversations also expounded on the concerns of growing Black in modern America.

Grief, death, and mourning were rife. These were laced with the exploration of police brutality – a Black kid witnessing his father being shot, and the news was abuzz with the headlines of a Black kid being killed by the police. It was ubiquitous, a dark and sad reality that many people of color cannot escape from. After all, society viewed them as a “plague on the economy” and as “prisoners in the making”. At the back of their mind was the reminder that their lives can be taken away from them at any moment. And what about the perpetrators? “I am a good and diligent citizen and what I did is not a reflection of who I am.” How many times have we heard this? Would change the reality that an innocent life was lost? It was these ugly scenes that gave rise to movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Mott subtly underlined how the indifference by white Americans has helped stoke the flames:

“And they’re going to always treat you differently than they treat themselves. They won’t ever know about it – at least most of them won’t. Most of them will think that everything is okay and that you’re being treated well enough and that everything is beautiful. Because, I guess for them, all they can imagine is a world in which things are fair and beautiful because afer all, they’ve always been treated fairly and beautifully. History has always kind kind to them.”

~ Jason Mott, Hell of a Book

The Kid’s and Soot’s invisibility was the symptom of another leitmotif: escapism. Escapism came in different forms. The escape from reality brought about by his condition was one of the manifestations of escapism. The author’s avoidance of his past was also a recurring theme; it was only towards the end that the readers crack the code of his novel. He also has an aversion to romantic commitments. To escape from trauma and loneliness, the author has developed a perversion to alcohol and humor. He also often retreats to daydreaming, making the readers question which was real and which was not. At one point, the author had a conversation with a limo driver who mentioned his Blackness. This was a revelation to the author, and perhaps even to the readers. It was a eureka moment that made the author question his past.

A seminal theme explored in the novel was the world of publishing. The author’s book tour was a wry representation of the industry. The novel also grappled with the plight of black American writers. A question hangs in the air that confronts their creative processes. During one of his media training, the unnamed writer was warned about writing about Blackness. A burden is placed on their shoulders. At the back of their mind, a quandary lurks. Should they grapple with the black experience in the US, whether it is in the past or in the present? White American writers, on the other hand, are not bound by their color or race: “I mean, White writers don’t have to write about being White. They can just write whatever books they want. But because I’m Black… does that mean that I can only ever write about Blackness? Am I allowed to write about other things? Am I allowed to be something other than simply the color of my skin?”

“A voice? What voice? The voice of my people? Always? Every second of everyday of my life? That’s what Black people are always supposed to be? And the Black condition? What kind of condition is that? You mean as an existing state of being? Or condition as in a state of health – like an illness?”

~ Jason Mott, Hell of a Book

The two storylines would eventually merge, providing clarity. To reach that clarity, certain facets of the story were blurred. As the story moved forward, there seemingly was an aversion to proper nouns. The cities and towns – San Francisco, Denver, Bolton – were very specific but the other places were not: a hotel, a restaurant, an airport, a radio station, a Major Cell Phone Company. This can also be observed in how the main characters were named. Some minor characters were named but the primary characters were either unnamed, nicknamed, or generically named. The most glaring facet, however, was the lack of time element. The absence of names and time elements underscored the ubiquitousness of the events portrayed in the story. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

If there was one other element that the novel was bereft of, it would be a solid plot. Nevertheless, Mott was able to reel the readers in through the utilization of stream-of-consciousness. This allowed the readers to dive deep into the psyche of the nameless author whose voice loomed above the story. The reader then becomes part of his journey of coming into terms with his past, his traumas, and his heritage. This was a dichotomy to the more poignant story of Soot. Mott added texture to the story by integrating elements of satire and humor. There was also a tendency for repetitions but as the story moved forward, it became clear that the repetitions were deliberate. It was meant to drive the message across.

The winner of the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction, Hell of a Book was a book that Mott has been envisioning for so long. It was a reckoning with who he is, both past and present. He managed to weave his vision and all of the novel’s various elements together through his evocative and innovative storytelling. While it was brimming with humorous elements, it was a ponderous and emotionally charged examination of what it means to be black in contemporary America, while simultaneously exploring a myriad of subjects such as colorism, workplace discrimination, mental health, and internalized self-hate. It is also the story of family, identity, and the sense of belongingness. Parts-satire, parts-social commentary, Hell of a Book is a conversation starter, a timely and seminal book that resonates on many levels.

“It’s a hell of a book. You’ve got a gift for words. You’ve got the ability to say things that others can’t say. You can pull out the things that other people have all trapped up inside of them. And it’s clear you can do it. Your book hit me in my heart!”

~ Jason Mott, Hell of a Book
Ratings

84%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

Prior to 2021, I have never heard of American novelist James Mott, nor have I read any of his works. It was until the announcement of the National Book Award for Fiction that I first encountered him. His fourth novel, Hell of a Book won the highly coveted literary prize. It was for this reason alone that I immediately added the book to my growing reading list, just like in 2020 when I added Charles Wu’s Interior Chinatown. Thankfully, I was able to obtain a copy of the book during my latest venture into the bookstore. Once I am done with my current read, I didn’t hesitate in starting to read Hell of a Book. At first, I was a little confused. The book has two distinct storylines and these two storylines would continuously alternate until the end of the book. There were also several repetitions that initially weighed down on me before I reached a eureka moment. When I reached a certain level of enlightenment regarding Mott’s message, the book started making sense. Mott was also a master at playing with my mind. At times, I doubted which of the anonymous main character’s visions were real and which were not. Nevertheless, it was an evocative read worthy of its accolades.

Book Specs

Author: Jason Mott
Publisher: Dutton
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 321
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

In Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, an African-American author sets out on a cross-country publicity tour to promote his bestselling novel. That story line drives Hell of a Book and is the scaffolding of something much larger and more urgent: Mott’s novel also tells the story of Soot, a young Black boy living in a rural town in the recent past, and The Kid, a possibly imaginary child who appears to the author on his tour.

As these characters’ stories build and converge, they astonish. For while this heartbreaking and magical book entertains and is at once about family, love of parents and children, art, and money, it’s also about the nation’s reckoning with a tragic police shooting playing over and over again on the news. And with what it can mean to be Black in America.

Who has been killed? Who is The Kid? Will the author finish his book tour, and what kind of world will he leave behind? Unforgettably told, with characters who burn into your mind and an electrifying plot ideal for book club discussion, Hell of aBook is the novel Mott has been writing in his head for the past ten years. And in its final twists, it truly becomes its title.

About the Author

Jason Mott was born in Bolton, North Carolina. He attended Cape Fear Community College in the nearby city of Wilmington. He is an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fiction and a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry.

Mott’s literary career started to flourish in 2009, when his poetry collection, We Call This Thing Between Us Love, was published. He followed it up with a second poetry collection, …hide behind me…, in 2011. In 2013, Mott published his debut novel, The Returned. It was a New York Times Bestseller and was adapted into a television series produced by ABC Studios. It aired in 2014 and 2015 with the title Resurrection. He published two more novels, The Wonder of All Things (2014), and The Crossing (2018) before gaining more recognition with his fourth novel, Hell of a Book (2021). His latest novel was awarded the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction. It was also nominated for the 2021 Sir Walter Raleigh Prize for Fiction and was longlisted for the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize, and the 2022 Joyce Carol Oates Prize.

Mott’s poetry and fiction were published in different journals, including Prick of the Spindle, the Thomas Wolfe ReviewThe Kakalak Anthology of Carolina PoetsMeasure, and Chautauqua. He was also nominated for a 2009 Pushcart Prize award. He currently resides in southeastern North Carolina.