THE RESIDUE YEARS doesn’t waste any time getting started. The characters appear fully formed on the page, seeming to bypass all need for character development. The streets are paved around the reader, familiar more for their lack of definition than for specific characteristics. All that remains to pull the reader completely into author Mitchell S. Jackson’s world is the ever-pressing reminder of rain, which never dissipates completely, even when the sun is shining.
The story focuses on Grace, a mother who has just been released from court-ordered rehab for crack cocaine, and her eldest son, Champ, a former hotshot on the high school basketball team who has since become a dealer. With Grace newly sober and back in her sons’ world, she is looking to reclaim her former life as a loving mother, breadwinner and devout believer. But the walls of her world are confined by her past: her halfway house is far from the minimum wage job she finally secures, and there doesn’t seem to be a way forward when even careful planning and penny pinching doesn’t pay off. Champ, on the other hand, has been waiting for his mother’s release, carefully stashing money to buy the house they lived in when he was a child, still standing in a gentrifying area of Portland.
"THE RESIDUE YEARS is an inspired testimony to the death of the American Dream. Or perhaps it is a rebuttal to the idea that there ever was one."
Both have the best intentions, but Jackson isn’t writing a made-for-TV story of triumph against the odds. Grace and Champ are lovable, warm-blooded and, at their best, intensely insightful. Champ reads like a still-rising star, full of joie de vivre and immaturity. His confidence and desire to do right are irresistible, if ultimately markers of naivety. Grace, though more worn down, also feels exceptional. She takes herself seriously as a woman conquering her former life, and her seriousness commands respect. She is just the sort of woman one can see breaking the chains of addiction, and overcoming past failures with an attitude that relies heavily on keeping your head down and making it through to the better thing that are surely waiting on the other side.
As always, things aren’t as simple as they should be. Though Champ tries his best to convince his mother that he is on solid ground, being a drug dealer is a dangerous enterprise with no insurance. And despite taking comfort in her progress, Grace feels estranged from her younger sons, who live with their father.
Both are drawn indelibly to escape, which feels only natural in a world that lacks wealth, security and status. But Jackson is not content to let them dream of escape. Instead he slowly manipulates their dreams until what looked like escape becomes something far more insidious. Grace finds relief from her life in small ways --- tea, warm baths and cigarettes --- until, after months of struggling, those small comforts are suddenly meaningless, at which point she returns to crack. It’s such a painless and natural-feeling transition that one could almost ignore it, if only this one time didn’t unavoidably lead to all the others. Meanwhile, Champ ups his game in the hopes of expediting his escape and takes a big risk on a long-shot solution too good to be true.
Mother and son are equally (and, at times, willfully) blind to the lives in front of them, the risks they are taking, and the consequences of their actions. They are able to convince themselves that if they want something hard enough, it will become a reality. The choices Grace and Champ make to protect their fragile dreams of overcoming the hand life dealt them are heartbreaking. THE RESIDUE YEARS is an inspired testimony to the death of the American Dream. Or perhaps it is a rebuttal to the idea that there ever was one.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on September 6, 2013
The Residue Years