Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

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People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?


I have read The Ballad of Black Tom before. When it first came out, I read some interviews with Victor LaValle, and I thought it sounded like an interesting concept. I was getting into the novella series, and even though I had never heard of LaValle at that time, I still thought that it was interesting to take on a Lovecraft story and make it his own. I did not know much about Lovecraft, did not pay much attention to him, only tried to read him once or twice but was put off by the structure and language. This means I didn’t know that he was a piece of garbage human being, a racist and misogynist, until the interviews with LaValle in regards to “The Horror at Red Hook” and his new novel. Needless to say, in 2016, when I read this, I was in way over my head. I knew LaValle is talented, but I did not quite get all of the nuances or the meanings behind the story.

Flash forward to this reading, four years later, in a different world and with clearer vision. There is so much in The Ballad of Black Tom that is so engaging and lyicial. The social commentary alone, set in the 20s with Tommy Tester going around the burroughs, playing his guitar and singing in a fashion that was not too great but mesmerizing, with his problems with white people staring, with the police for being out of Harlem, for society to see him only as the cloak that he was wearing, a poor street performer. The truth is that Black Tom is much more than this. He is a human that is trying to find his way out of the hurt and anger that society has given him.

The story is told in two parts. The first part is Tommy Tester getting a job to play guitar and sing at the party of Robert Suydam, a character whom I still haven’t quite figured out his intentions. It is almost as if he is trying to help People of Color but in doing so his speech and word choices are very insulting and racist. I don’t know if his heart is in the right place, but most likely it is not. Most likely, Suydam is only being friendly to immigrants in general and Tommy Tester in particular because they can do something for him. Tommy is also being followed by the police, Office Malone, and Mr. Howard, a detective, both of them using their nature to harass Tommy on his daily business.

The story that unfolds is filled with sadness and revenge, and I like the turns that it takes. I like The Ballad of Black Tom, and the punches land hard and square. There is not a single sentence or scene that feels like it is not needed, and the scenes and feelings are much clearer than they were the first time. I loved every page of this. I knew the first time I read this that it was my perspective that was faltering, not LaValle’s writing, and having read other things by him, I knew it was time to revisit this novella. I was not disappointed. This is a great introduction to one of America’s best authors, something that you can read in an afternoon that runs the gambit of the things that LaValle tries  to accomplish.

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