With Long Way Down,
has written a book it takes but a moment to read
And yet –
these pinpoint words, even after a lifetime, will not be Forgotten
Let us not let it take any longer to be truly Understood.
Pardon my efforts at writing a review in the style of Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down. Beyond the novel itself having a great impact, the style in which it is written can be nothing but inspirational. Written completely in narrative verse, Long Way Down belongs to a tradition of young adult novels that manipulate form as a way of reaching new levels of impact. This novel fits perfectly on the shelf alongside the works of Ellen Hopkins, Jacqueline Woodson, Rainbow Rowell, and Owen Matthews (whose How to Win at High School and The Fixes were both reviewed here on BOLO Books).
Long Way Down tells the story of William Holloman, a young black man on the cusp of making a life-changing decision. As the novel opens, readers learn that Will’s brother Shawn has been shot and killed in what is likely a gang-related incident. Following a list of rules he has been taught from a very young age, Will stoically sets out to get revenge. The bulk of the novel takes place in the one minute and seven seconds it takes for Will to descend in the apartment elevator.
The elevator makes unexpected stops at each floor along the way; stops that serve as chapter/section changes within the overall novel. At each floor, another person enters the elevator. These people each have advice, stories, and/or legacies for Will to comprehend. The question is, however, is Will too hyped up to assimilate them?
Long Way Down is a coming-of-age novel. It says volumes that unlike the Victorian Bildungsroman, this contemporary version distills events down to a crucial, yet brief, time-frame. This is no life-to-death narrative – or more accurately, if it is a life-to-death narrative, it is one that spans the course of less than two minutes. Such is the tough destiny for young men of color in our modern age.
More than anything, Long Way Down is a story about family – the natural family one is born into, the chosen family one surrounds oneself with, and the communal family of the world. Jason Reynolds wants us to believe – to know – that these are not mutual exclusive categories. Jason Reynolds wants us – needs us –to embrace our humanity. We can never walk in another’s shoes, but we can feel empathy for the journey those around us are taking.
Over the course of Long Way Down there are turns of phrase that will resonate far beyond the pages of the book. Like all poets, Reynolds is careful with the words he chooses, with the sounds they make, and the meanings they convey. Long Way Down can be read in just a few hours, but the beauty and power of these words will have readers slowing down to savor them and turning back to experience them multiple times.
(Personal note: After two readings of Long Way Down, I also purchased the audio version – read by the author himself – and can honestly say that to experience it verbally is yet another profound experience impossible to duplicate. The best of both worlds would be to hold the book in your hand, turning the pages, as Jason Reynolds recites it to you.)
Look, there are no easy answers in Long Way Down. In fact, I will go so far as to say that there are no answers in the book at all. The answers lie in your heart as you experience the novel – as the novel changes you. Reading Long Way Down is a profoundly moving experience one I hope that the book’s intended audience finds and savors and embraces as their own. The poetry on these pages goes toe to toe with the best rap lyrics out there. But we must not overlook the impact this novel can have on those who were never its primary audience – regardless of age, race, gender, or creed – Long Way Down has much to teach us all.