Rion Amilcar Scott’s debut collection Insurrections—our July Rumpus Book Club pick—comes out from University Press of Kentucky on Tuesday and is a timely and vital look into the daily struggles of individuals in the mostly black community of Cross River, Maryland, a fictional town that was founded by slaves in 1807 after a successful revolt. (Read more about the origins of Cross River in Scott’s interview at Specter Magazine.) One of the standout stories from the collection is “A Friendly Game,” which follows four teen boys as hypermasculinity threatens to tear them apart, and the crackhead with a heartbreaking past who becomes the target of their humiliation-fueled rage. Those in the Rumpus Book Club have already had the pleasure of reading the story in their advance copies of Insurrections, but if you who haven’t joined yet (do it here!) can read this troubling and necessary story at Literary Orphans.
The characters in “A Friendly Game” could be pigeonholed into stereotypical roles—the bully, the lackey, the good guy—and the reader does get the impression that these teenage boys are indeed trying to conform to a certain way of being, but Scott skillfully resists and undermines these tropes even as he shows his characters trying so hard to fit in to them. Kwayku is the leader who rules by bullying and bravado, constantly talking shit and detailing his sexual exploits. Casey is the beta dog who isn’t great at basketball but has a super hot girlfriend Marcy who he treats with respect despite the culture of objectification that surrounds him. It would be easy to mark Casey out as the protagonist and Kwayku the antagonist, especially in this scene after a basketball game when Kwayku explodes into a display of machismo, trying to intimidate Casey by detailing the sex acts he will perpetrate on Marcy as if she’s not even there:
“Watch, man, I’m gonna fuck your girl. What you think about that?”
Casey didn’t respond.
“Man, that ain’t a rhetorical question. I’m gonna stick my dick in that ass. What you gonna do?”
Marcy was as still as a plastic doll or, rather, a mannequin from the department store window. Her face was just as hollow, though grave. Richard and Wayne chuckled, yet they didn’t smile.
Casey looked around at each eye. They were fixed on him, hungering for his reaction. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“Huh? You forget how to talk?”
“Man,” Casey said slowly and quietly. “I don’t care. Do what you want to do.”
But Scott ensures it’s not that simple, not a reductionist good guy/bad guy narrative. The power of Scott’s writing lies in his excavation of the real humans beneath the masks culture tells them to wear. Scott also reveals the devastating consequences of that aggressive braggadocio when the boys become annoyed with a disheveled and obviously either high or mentally ill (or both at this point) woman who wanders by their court yelling unintelligibly. After verbally disparaging her for a couple rounds and some shit-talk about her being Casey’s mother, one of the boys picks up a rock. It’s not Kwayku. It’s Casey. He throws the rock at the woman’s head.
Kwayku howled sharply. Wayne gasped and Rich followed.
Everyone silently watched one another. The woman’s eyes widened as blood ran down her face. Kwayku snickered and then doubled over in laughter.
The woman was frozen and then she was in motion, running off into the street and then she was gone. The boys spent a half-hour replaying the event, changing it until it was a myth.
“Man, that was fucked up,” Wayne said.
“Shut up, nigga,” Kwayku said. “You was laughing the hardest.”
At the end of the half-hour, they remembered the rock striking as a light thing, an inconvenience to the woman. They forgot the terror in her face. The sinking feeling of fear that wound through their chests. The blood. It became a scene in a slapstick comedy. They renamed her “Lady MacBeard.” Instead of shocked silence, they recalled laughter being stuck in their throats. It was all nothing, but nothing and in brief moments they remembered what they forgot.
“A Friendly Game” is a powerful perspective on these young black men who are othered by mainstream culture and derided as thugs and criminals, a perception that has become increasingly dangerous and even fatal for black boys and men in America. Even as Scott shows Kwayku bullying his friends and sexually harassing Marcy, shows Casey lobbing rock after rock at the drug-addicted woman whose private story exposes an entire other storyline of hardship in the black community, Scott reveals the goodness at the heart of each. The story Scott tells here is complex and distressing, with bits of beauty shining through, and it’s an absolutely necessary read, as is the rest of Insurrections.