FEBRUARY 24, 2015
DRIVE NORTH out of Manhattan on Route 9A, and you’ll pass signs for the Throgs Neck Bridge. The bridge, which connects Queens and the Bronx, opened in 1961, was built to alleviate traffic into Queens over the Whitestone Bridge. Despite the builders’ intention to decrease congestion, the bridge’s name always suggested violence to me, as I left the city for greener, more spacious points north — throttling the neck, a blockage by suffocation. Some folks imagine the Bronx that way too. While they’re wrong, New York City’s northernmost borough is the poorest county in the state, with nearly 30 percent of residents living in poverty, and an unemployment rate of over 11 percent. This is no accident, or not the only one. The way race, class, and education access are intertwined is more a feature of mainstream American media than ever but data points can be hard to digest when what’s at stake is human lives and livelihood. Rather than using numbers to gauge the Bronx, Mark Wisniewski’s new, snappy noir novel Watch Me Go traffics in stories, in gradations of truth, guilt, and betrayal. And for a book about racism, with a sizable body count, it’s a fun, ripping read.
The novel most closely follows Deesh, legal name Douglas Sharp, a black man in his 40s who lives in the Bronx and makes a living cobbling together odd jobs. On the day the novel opens, he and two old friends are riding in a pickup truck 100 miles upstate. Day laborers willing to schlep for work, the three men arrive at a ramshackle house in the countryside, where a young white woman halfway down a crawl space offers them a thousand bucks to get rid of an oil drum that’s sitting in the dark beside her. Without asking too many questions, Deesh, Bark, and their boss James take the drum and the cash. But as soon as they’re off the property, questions start rattling in their brains. Why was that obviously broke woman willing to part with so much money? What could she have been so desperate to unload? Deesh does his best to keep his fingerprints off the drum and let his friends do the heavy lifting, but he knows he can’t really avoid guilt: “I tell myself I’m with them anyway, so I might as well make sure I get paid.”
The other half of the narrative belongs to Jan, a young white woman who moved with her parents from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to a horse-racing town in idyllic, remote upstate New York to find work. The racetrack in their new home provides the locals with both jobs and leisure. It’s the heart of the social scene, and an outlet for desperation and compulsion. And for Jan, because she’s a woman, and for the middle-aged jockeys widening around the middle, the obvious goal is to be thin enough to jock, to rise above ordinary concerns for a moment and taste speed.
A horse is a metaphor for escape and sheer masculine power — for self-determination, never mind the saddle or the bit. Jan’s father fell during a race and got his hand trampled, and she says, “[M]y father hadn’t done a single thing right at the track since.” In his off time, Jan’s father liked to fish — another kind of seeking into the unknown, hook and line swinging through lake water. But he could never catch a fish big enough, and to try and change that, he sat one night by the lake with heavy-duty fishing line wrapped around his ankle, so that if a fish bit while he slept, it would tug him awake. Instead, it cut off circulation and he died from hubris, from the need to prove himself by catching something bigger and better than he ever had before, to kill and eat it before it could kill him. There’s another death in the novel — a murder by strangulation with wire — but what’s more interesting than laying blame for the killings is investigating who will be blamed for them. Is masculinity this toxic? How does a woman like Jan get stuck cleaning up the mess?
Deesh and Bark, back in the Bronx and jumpy from dumping the oil drum, decide to leave town, ditch the truck somewhere, and catch a bus down south — but first, they stop at a bodega to pick up a six-pack for Bark. Parking in New York City is notoriously difficult, so Bark double-parks the truck and turns on the flashers. A white police officer comes over to investigate and draws a gun, demanding that the men exit the vehicle. Bark gets jumpy, pulls his own concealed gun out of his waistband, and shoots. This is reckless and maybe foolish of him, but what does he have to lose, aside from his minimal freedom? American society makes life very difficult for a black man without a steady job, a family, or extra cash. As Deesh puts it earlier in the book, “It’s the appearance of the Bronx that does it. That feeling of being squeezed in. That feeling of knowing you are one of thousands, if not millions, of brothers caged into a future in which you will finally do something no-holds-barred stupid.” And once the gun is pulled, the future is certain. Deesh and Bark have to go, fast.
These moments, full of cinematic thrill, speed, and fate, are Wisniewski’s strength. He’s able to create and sustain dramatic tension with neat, colloquial prose, taking into account history and politics without ever turning away from the central goal of writing a page-turning book. As Bark and Deesh flee to New Jersey, Wisniewski kicks into anxious, furious rhythm: “The lane-lines are all screwed up, some new, some faded, some crooked, some suddenly ending, a trucker in front of us veering as if to say he’s the boss of this stretch, so when I see his flushed-pink face in the mirror I scream at his move, at any racism in him, at the dead cop’s racism, at all of the white hatred in the world.”
What a relief, weeks after two cops were shot in Brooklyn, after the non-indictments of the police officers charged with killing Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to read something so furious and cathartic. Wisniewski is not often a subtle writer, but death is not subtle. Still, the novel does gain nuance as it goes. Deesh ends up deep in the Pennsylvania woods, looking to ditch the murder weapon, forcing a poor, old, white fishing guide to show him how to live in the wild. The two men, each deeply socially disenfranchised, find commonality in lost love and vulnerability, though, being straight American men, they express emotion in a rather Hemingway-esque way. Gus, the fishing guide, tells Deesh he’s on blood thinners for a heart condition. “‘Take one of these oars and smack me over the head,’ he says. ‘And you’ll see a man die fast.’”
The main fault of Watch Me Go is its fixation on masculinity, sometimes manifested in overly muscular, blockhead-romantic prose (“Only here and there are lit yards of lone houses, but still I think: Keep going. You need to be in pure nature.”). Deesh has complex relationships with men and women, and his storyline is built of forward-moving, suspenseful action; but Jan’s story suffers from being told retrospectively, moving up to and only briefly intersecting with the present. She lives with her “saintly mother,” but her mother is rarely seen. Instead, Wisniewski shows Jan going running at night “to honor my father,” and along the way she falls in love with Tug, the boy who jogs beside her. Even when Wisniewski writes Jan’s internal monologue, he’s fixated on male desire, on how Jan’s body appears to the men at the race track, or how Jan wants to do “the guy stuff” when she goes fishing with Tug. Jan, of course, is the woman with the oil drum. And there is something wonderful about a woman offloading a heavy, mysterious vessel, pregnant with darkness and suspicion, to a group of men barely equipped to handle this external womb, this symbol of death and the need to survive past touching it.
I wonder if that’s a metaphor Wisniewski intended, or even noticed, or whether I’m more attuned to the image because I’m a woman and I’m angry. Regardless, Wisniewski does an excellent job writing about the fury and hunger that arise out of marginality and lack of power, and that energy resonates throughout the book. I wonder, in this intersectional novel, whether there are other perspectives whose weaknesses I have a harder time perceiving, but even if that’s so, Wisniewski’s novel is limited and messy because it is human, and so is he. His characters are limited and messy because they are human. Deesh is especially compelling, complex, and tender and yearning to somehow make right. It’s rare to read a story with morals that doesn’t feel like a morality tale. Read this book.