At one point in his hilariously searing novel Black Card, Chris L. Terry pauses the narrative to issue a list of what makes certain people racist. Some usual suspects make the list, including white guys who find stereotypical black pimps cool and those "who do the black guy voice." But Terry aims one of the list's entries at himself: "Half-white guys who get way into punk rock as a reaction to their black classmates not being into skateboarding." Basically, that's the premise of Black Card — a work of fiction that draws from the author's own experiences as a mixed-race young man existing in two overlapping and not always welcoming worlds: the American punk rock scene and the American South.
The unnamed narrator of Black Card moves from "up north" to Richmond, Virginia, where he falls in with a black kid named Lucius who knows how to navigate "old-school Down South" and becomes the narrator's mentor. Lucius' mission: to teach his new ward — son of a black father and a white mother — how to be more black. Being a punk rocker, the narrator has a lot to learn; an internal battle between skateboarding and basketball, between the Beastie Boys and Outkast, ensues. In Terry's satirical world, a black card is an actual object — made of gold and diamonds — to be handed out and carried around, one that denotes that rights and expectations of being a black person in America. But the narrator yearns to retain his other self as well, that of a bassist in a punk band who is often able to pass for white.
An identity crisis ensues, and Terry wrings every possible ounce of pathos, triumph, and humor out of it. The narrator haplessly tries to romance Mona, his black coworker at a hip coffee shop. But after a contorted courtship, she's stabbed during a burglary, leaving the narrator as a suspect. And even within his own punk band, Paper Fire — Terry himself played in a noteworthy group called Light the Fuse and Run in the mid-'00s — the narrator is forced to contend with racial politics as well as the demands of a subculture that's predominantly white. As he navigates the fraught worlds of punks, hippies, rappers, and cops, his droll observations of his two worlds, and his own tenuous straddling of them, help punctuate the plot. "If the city is full of flags supporting an army that lost over a century ago," he says of his adopted home town Richmond, "it's not gonna forget who you were last year."
Ultimately it's the narrator's war with himself that's the most dramatic conflict in Black Card. "I wanted to recognize myself," he says. "I wish I was awesomer. I wish I was blacker. I wish I could just settle into something and be it." He calls punk "a quick fix, but life wasn't that quick." He says of hip hop, "I love [it] because it's courage and bluster in the face of a world it can't control." But the divide within his soul is more than personal. As Terry so cleverly and poignantly points out, the narrator's split personality embodies the soul of America itself. And with deadpan comic timing, sensitive insight, and taut, terse prose, Terry plunges the reader into his turmoil. Like nature, racial identity in America abhors a vacuum. If you don't fill in your own identity, as Black Card illustrates, someone else will. Striking a superb balance between levity and heaviness, Terry crafts an enormously fun read about a decidedly less than fun topic.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller