Many years ago, Henry Rollins read Requiem for a Dream. He found Hubert Selby Jr.’s phone number in the phone book, called him, and asked him how he was supposed to continue writing when Selby had written everything that needs to be written. Selby’s work had pushed the prolific writer into writer’s block.
Before Requiem for a Dream, he had read three other Selby books. Before reading John Vercher’s Three-Fifths, I had read a handful of great books in a row. It was to the point of being a little ridiculous. It was time for a meh read because you know, odds. After We Were Witches and Half in Love with Death (I could go back further or you could read the reviews on my freaking blog), I read Three-Fifths. I knew this wasn’t going to be the meh read because several readers whose opinions I trust had sang its praises. But I was not prepared for just how outstanding and impactful it is.
In this story I’m Henry Rollins and John Vercher is Hubert Selby Jr. Except it wasn’t a phone call, it was a text where I told John that he had punched me in the metaphorical dick. And not only did it make it impossible for me to write, I couldn’t even read another book for about two weeks.
Three-Fifths is about Bobby Saraceno, a biracial black man passing for white in Pittsburgh. It’s 1995, and Bobby’s best friend Aaron has just returned from prison. Aaron is no longer the scrawny comic-book geek from Bobby’s adolescence. He’s a muscled-up white supremacist who wastes no time involving Bobby in a hate crime.
Bobby is a hard-working young man, a good kid who hustles relentlessly so he and his mom can make ends meet. His focus to stay afloat intensifies as he continues to hide his identity from his best friend and tries to figure out how to clear his conscience and stay out of prison.
Vercher confronts everyone’s racial biases head-on, saving no one from discomfort. No character is completely guilty or innocent, and no one is spared from the damage inflicted by America’s legacy of racism. Vercher finds a way to make the reader understand every flawed character. And he makes you care way more than you’ll want to.
Three-Fifths pulled me in from the very first sentence. Like Bobby, I willingly went along for the ride and wasn’t the same after. No matter how “woke” you think you are, this novel will hold a mirror up to something in yourself you don’t want to see.
My only regret about Three-Fifths is not reading it sooner.