I had to read How It Went Down in sections. It’s about a black teenager who is shot by a white man, and all the different characters — the witnesses, the families, friends — tell their perspectives of what happened on the day of Tariq’s death and in the aftermath of it. If any other author in the world had written this book, I wouldn’t have read it. But I trust Kekla Magoon from her wonderful, wrenching The Rock and the River, which is about teenage brothers and their participation (or lack of it) in the Black Panther Party.
I read the first third in December, and then the grand jury decision came down in Ferguson, and then the one for Eric Garner, and I didn’t want to read the fictional sad version of the real-life sad events, so I took a break. Then I picked it up and read the remaining two-thirds in one evening.
Magoon does something that I think is tremendously clever, which is that she makes her characters want the same things her readers want, i.e., Meaning. Everyone in this book wants to know why Tariq died, and the answer can’t be — because it would be unbearable — that there was no reason.
The day after I finished How It Went Down, I learned that a college friend of mine died last year. We were flatmates the year I lived in England. We didn’t stay in touch after I left. I hadn’t even known he was ill. When I thought of him, I imagined he was still playing drums and making dead-baby jokes, like he did when we were twenty and stupid. Forever probably, I thought. Except I was wrong about that. He was having cancer (and presumably also playing drums and making dead-baby jokes), and in October, he died, and I didn’t know.
These are some things about him: He made jokes always, at everyone’s expense, but if one of them hurt your feelings, he was swiftly and utterly sorry and would buy you a box of biscuits next time he went to Tesco, to make up for it. When I was too tipsy to do my own head counts, he was the one I asked “Where’s Ed?” and “Where’s Flick?” and he always knew where they were, which I realize now was because he was keeping track of everyone. He played drums and bought rounds of drinks when it wasn’t his turn to buy them. He made sad stories impossibly funny. It is pointless and unfair for him to be dead.
When I heard this news, I thought: Spooky. I had just finished reading that book about death and what it means. I had just been talking to Alice about how nobody in my life had died for a while. That same day.
You will most likely notice that neither of those two things is, in fact, spooky. They would barely be spooky even if you accepted their implicit premise that my college friend was a supporting character in my life, rather than the lead character in his own. But this is how people behave, when something inexplicable has happened. We cluster together everything that has happened surrounding the inexplicable thing, and we try to find the magical ways that it actually isn’t inexplicable at all. Actually it makes a weird sort of sense. Actually it makes so much sense that you should have known it was coming, because the universe was telegraphing it to you all along, if you had just bothered to listen.
Death isn’t actually like that. Stories are like that. If a character mentions a knife in a red leather sheath, you expect that knife to come around again and be significant. Every part of the story is important. Every part of the story has Meaning. The characters in How It Went Down expect that they will, at some point, find the answers that will explain Tariq’s death; we readers know that they are missing crucial puzzle pieces. But Magoon doesn’t end her book with any grand revelations or moral lessons. There is no final missing piece that can explain everything to the characters, or to the reader. Tariq’s death doesn’t matter differently if he was in a story of racism or a story of gang violence or a story of stupid misunderstandings. The fundamental thing is the tragedy that a person is gone who was loved. Sometimes that’s all there is.