by Tochi Onyebuchi
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 28, 2022
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I received an advance e-book of Goliath from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. My habit has been to review ahead of publication, but I've had trouble focusing lately, and previous books took longer than expected. It was released this past Tuesday. It is Onyebuchi's first adult novel, his earlier work being YA or shorter work for adults, including his multiple award-winning novella Riot Baby. It has been five months since I downloaded the ARC to my Kindle, and I have no idea if there have been revisions. Not being a writer or editor I shouldn't presume, but I think at least a rearrangement of some of the chapters might have helped my comprehension.
I'm not sure of the time frame, since whenever a date comes up it is 20__, but I'm assuming at least 20 years into the future, maybe more. From our history in the US we know of "white flight," the abandonment of the cities for the suburbs, many of which for the longest time were restricted to whites. The flight in this novel is from the planet to orbiting space habitats. But as we have also seen in the real world, eventually some whites have come back to the cities, and through gentrification have once again alienated people of color, making it harder for them to afford. One thing I'm not sure of is why people were leaving the habitats and returning to Earth. It starts with a white man, Jonathan, landing on Earth and taking various transportation from the spaceport off-shore of Bridgeport Harbor to New Haven, Connecticut, where he wants to search for a home to renovate for himself and his partner, David. Tochi attended Yale, so he is familiar with the area, and speculates what condition it might be in years after the original flight from it, as well as other things that occurred to make almost all of the eastern seaboard a much more hazardous place to live. Jonathan finds a place in West Rock, and while working on it he comes in contact with several others previously introduced, crews supervising demolition of houses and reclamation of some of the building materials.
It is not until well past the halfway point when we get some of the back stories, which take us back to a time either concurrent with today, or at most a few years past it. For instance, the current pandemic is mentioned several times. I double checked to be sure, but there is no note on the ARC that says I shouldn't quote anything. This is from the third section, talking about the past, but I think it is from an interview of someone in the 'present day': "…for a lot of us, the only America we know is basically a country on fire, right? Like America's somehow the only country that could not only fuck up response to a global viral pandemic, but keep fucking it up, and you also got all the race laundry out in the open like that, and, granted, it's stuff anybody with a brain and half a conscience knows about, but now it's all happening out loud, you know?"
It's hard to say who the main character is, but it turns out it is not Jonathan, at least I think there were a few others that are more important. One is Bishop, an older man who is a mentor to many of the reclamation workers, usually referred to as stackers, since they take old brick and knock the mortar off, stacking them into walls around them as they work. One of the more interesting stories about Bishop is when he was in prison in South Carolina, leading a group of inmates during a strike for better conditions. That prison is fictional, but something nearby is not. The V. C. Summer Nuclear Power Station near Jenkinsville has had numerous problems over the years, including a shutdown that occurred late last year, after this was written. In this story it had been decommissioned, but not completely cleaned up. A severe storm flooded the facility, radiation leaking into the air and ground water, and that radiation still affects the East Coast years later, including the New Haven region. Many cities have constructed domes and air filtration systems, with some of the returnees adding small domes over their communities. Air masks must be worn outside of a dome, but many still suffer from respiratory problems, and cancer rates are very high.
I think it was the same character quoted above that also said, "…history don't repeat itself, but it sure as hell rhymes." Just because this is set in the future doesn't mean it isn't relevant today. These are things that need to be said, even as a lot of it is traumatic. It's reminiscent of current problems, including increased policing of blacks as more white people move into an area. A lot of the rhetoric is angry, but very appropriate. My comment above about a possible rearrangement of the narrative is due to the random, non-linear progression, plus short chapters that present characters and situations, but then move on to something else, including flashbacks that are sometimes difficult to place as to time. Hard to get a sense of a character before another is introduced. The third section is mostly the back stories, then in the last section several events are out of order, with deaths mentioned, followed by scenes where those characters are still alive. There's also a lot of slang that I didn't understand, causing more confusion. My appreciation for the story increased as it progressed, leading me to rate it 4 stars, even though certain sections deserve a higher grade. It's recommended, while I'd still caution it is not an easy read. It's brutal and traumatic in parts, full of pain and grief, but there are also streaks of hope, community, love, and respect.
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