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6 March 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 4:16am

Like money and power, second chances are never distributed equally

The bad decision made by a black person who is poor is has very different consequences to the bad decision made by a white person who is not.

By Megan Nolan

I read JM Holmes’ debut story collection, How Are You Going To Save Yourself, in one brief hot rush last summer, something I don’t usually find myself doing with books of short fiction. Holmes has an uncanny gift for dialogue, which gives you the feeling of compulsively listening in on conversations; lyrical, funny, outrageous conversations which as often as not lead to an unforeseeable dark conclusion. Although, “conclusion” is the wrong word here: part of what is so intoxicating about Save Yourself is the sense of uncertainty and unpredictable movement in the lives described. We feel the wafer-thin lines between success and failure, happiness and tragedy, community and alienation.

The collection follows four friends from Rhode Island, Rydell, Lazarus, Rakim and Giovanni – nicknamed Dub, Rolls, Rye and Gio – as they grow into men over the course of a decade. Race and sex are the big questions at play throughout, issues that at times intersect with quite breathtaking ugliness and ferocity. An incident involving the eroticisation of a racial slur which occurs at the book’s beginning and surfaces again towards its end is unforgettably bleak. I shut the book in a hurry when I came to re-read it for this column, having forgotten just how unsettling Holmes’ writing can be.

It is both a brilliant piece of fiction and a timely, impressionistic portrait of what it’s like to be young and black in America, and deserved far wider attention than it won upon publication in 2018. It reminds me a little of one of my favourite collections, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. Both books pay lavish, almost religious attention to single moments, to transient instances which change things forever. Both deal with people who are disenfranchised and marginal; both recognise that brief and seemingly inconsequential moments can define the futures of people who live like that, in a way that just isn’t the case for people who are better off. Chances, like everything else in this world, are not distributed equally.

The bad decision made by a black person who is poor is has very different consequences to the bad decision made by a white person who is not. Bad decisions can cause lives of precarity to crumble in an instant. In one way, this is purely economic. Money can buy you out of most trouble you get into. If you fail to pay your rent one month because you gambled or drank it away, but Dad can pay it for you, plus a few months extra in advance to keep the landlord sweet: then, like magic, it never happened.

If you fail to pay your rent for the same reasons, but you have no Dad (or no Dad with money anyway), it did happen. And not only did it happen, it keeps making other bad things happen, not only in the present but enduringly, echoing through years which follow. Even if those years are good years, well-behaved years, the cost of your mistake and your debt and your eviction and your bad credit stays right along with you, changing the kind of person you’ll turn out to be.

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So, yes, in one way it’s just about money and the power that money has, a power that feels infuriatingly out of reach to those without it. But in another way it’s also about who you are, how you’re seen, and what chances you’re perceived to deserve. It’s about who we believe to have potential and who we assume has none: the kinds of people we assume never had any to begin with. Throwing them away because of their mistake seems like just good common sense.

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White rich people are allowed a seemingly endless number of second chances, not just through their financial access but through a generalised perception of them being essentially good despite their actions, essentially filled with positive potential. They’re granted indefinite adolescence. Men who engage in overtly hateful, not to mind illegal, far-right political activity are referred to as wayward boys. We just need to be patient and talk them around, it’s suggested. Meanwhile young black men who commit minor crimes are handed lengthy jail terms and put out of sight: imprisoned before they could get any worse, before they could release their essentially negative potential out into the world.

About a decade ago, I ruined my own life. I squandered the opportunities I’d been given upon leaving school (quite remarkable opportunities they were too). There were reasons for what I did, reasons which would make you feel sorry for me if I told you them and might cause you to sympathise with what I did, but then everyone has reasons. What happened is: I went mad, drank myself out of university and didn’t tell anyone about it. I wasted a lot of my parents’ money on funding my extended breakdown, money they did not have to spare and that it’s unlikely I’ll ever earn enough to pay them back. I thought back then that I would die of shame, and from the feeling of failing myself and everyone I loved.

I didn’t die. That is really only down to the fact that I had parents who loved me, and who were able to let me live with them while I got back on my feet. I’m not suggesting I had it easy, or that a new life was handed to me on a plate, but I had a second chance because I had those two things. Where would I have ended up without them? I didn’t have much will to carry on then, having so thoroughly decimated the architecture of my life and my idea of myself. I felt as if I would never again be thought of as clever, good, nice: descriptors I had built an identity on. I didn’t have the energy to drag myself up from nothing, so I honestly can’t imagine that I would be around now if I wasn’t blessed with those essential structures.

Joan Didion famously wrote in her essay Goodbye To All of That: “some things are in fact irrevocable and it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

She is realising that the deferral of responsibility is not possible forever, that the chickens of her youth would eventually come home to roost. But for many people, there never was a deferral of responsibility: they never would have been allowed it. That everything counts after all may be true, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t count very differently for a Joan Didion than it does for other kinds of people. (A point that was, incidentally, rather crudely illustrated for me by this detail in the essay: “(I had) so little money that some weeks I had to charge food at Bloomingdale’s gourmet shop in order to eat”.

The racist and classist economy of second chances is visible every day in legal systems across the world. We saw it when Lavinia Woodward, the Oxford medical student who stabbed her boyfriend, was spared a custodial sentence on account of her academic potential. We saw it from the opposite perspective in 2011, when a 23-year-old man from Camberwell who stole a £1.30 bottle of water from Lidl during the heavily racialised London riots of that summer was sentenced to six months in jail for his theft.

In California, Brock Turner walked free following his conviction for attempted rape in 2016, while a black man in the same state is facing life in prison for marijuana convictions. It isn’t that I want more jail time and less sympathy. It’s just that I’d like us to try to allow everyone the luxury of a background narrative, that bit of personhood, that we do the privileged.

In one How Are You Going To Save Yourself story, Rye, a fireman, walks into the firehouse kitchen late and greets his boss:

“You’re late,” Moss said. “Strike two.”

“Sorry, family drama.”

“Shoulda picked a different one then.”

People like Rye are not allowed to have problems. When they mess up, they aren’t allowed another shot. They used up their one problem, being poor and black, by the time they were born. There are no second chances for a certain kind of person. In this book, Holmes pays proper attention to those moments where second chances slip away, lending them a kind of grace, even when they break your heart.