The last few years have seen a call to action on the diversity front within the crime fiction community. Since change such as this must start at the top in order to be successful, the announcement that Polis Books – a highly respected independent book publisher – planned to launch a new imprint devoted to diversity in all its myriad manifestations was received with a tremendous volume of support. This week, the first book from Agora will be released and it more than lives up to the promise of this new venture.
Publication of John Vercher’s debut places a demarcation spot on the lineage of diverse crime fiction – now delineating pre Three-Fifths and post Three-Fifths. This may seem hyperbolic, but it is the only way to express the personal reaction to this important work. There is something in Vercher’s approach, which is deceptively simple, that allows the impact to reverberate in different ways for each reader depending on their own placement on the diversity continuum. What is remarkable is that every group will come away from the reading of this novel with new and greater insight into differing (and even opposing) opinions.
John Vercher wastes no time in drawing the reader into this world. The first chapter of Three-Fifths is gritty and naturalistic, setting the tone for this ultra-realistic narrative. Readers should be prepared for full immersion – meaning that the language, action, and reactions are not always easy to consume, but are never less than necessary and authentic. By the time the reader reaches the final two lines of Chapter One, there is no turning back.
Three-Fifths is the story of Bobby Saraceno, a mixed-race young man coming of age in mid-nineties Pittsburgh. Early on, Bobby made the choice to live his life as a white man, not discussing his heritage with even those closest to him, largely because of the reactions he saw towards African-Americans from his Grandfather. When Bobby’s best friend Aaron is released from prison, Bobby discovers that the time he spent incarcerated has changed Aaron is troubling ways. Aaron has joined a white-supremacist group and assumes that Bobby holds similar views. On their first night out together in years, an altercation between Aaron and a young black man turns violent, leaving Bobby in a tailspin of uncertainty and fear – forcing him to confront who he is in ways that he has never before been able to.
Meanwhile, Bobby’s mother Isabel has a chance encounter with a man in the local bar that will alter all their lives. Left with no other option but to examine her life’s path, Isabel must make a choice that has the potential to be as painful as it is healing. That man, Dr. Robert Winston, is also at a turning point in his life, one not of his own choosing but certainly partly of his own making, and his encounter with Isabel stirs up old memories – both good and bad.
Three-Fifths is a slim novel, but this belies the volume of revolutionary thought contained within. There are times when Vercher writes with the precision and pinpoint accuracy more often associated with poetic endeavors. Emotions and feelings are not simply explained, but they are felt by the reader in ways that are rarely witnessed in debut works. The time period is brought to life with the briefest of touchstones: things like the OJ Simpson trial and X-Men comics. Points-of-view ebb and flow as necessary to tell a fully well rounded take on this complex tale.
In the end, what readers gain from reading Three-Fifths will depend on the individual. At the very least, this is an effective examination of the collateral damage inflicted by hate. Even years after a decision, it can be impossible to understand the unfulfilled potential, the missed opportunities, and the lost hope certain decisions lead to. But if readers will open their hearts and truly listen to each of these characters, there is a healing to be had. This is not a narrative designed to place blame and point out wrongs, but is rather an examination of the “hows” and “whys” across the board. John Vercher knows that empathy and understanding are the way forward, our path to a better tomorrow. Readers must not only read Three-Fifths, they must share Three-Fifths, and above all, we must talk about Three-Fifths.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.