Stellar novel from WO author tackles timely issue

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Marchers at Black Lives Matter protests across the nation have been chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” After reading West Orange author Stephen Clark’s new book, some may say, “‘Hands Up,’ must read!”

Clark’s second novel, “Hands Up,” explores a fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Philadelphia, Pa., through the narratives of three characters: the victim’s angry and hurting sister, the victim’s estranged father who is trying to overcome his gangster past, and the white police officer who fired the fatal shot.

This novel is a moving and eloquent look at this incredibly timely issue. 

“Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Like many Americans, I was horrified by the deaths of these young black men at the hands of police in recent years,” Clark told the West Orange Chronicle. “As a former journalist, I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the shallow and superficial media coverage of these incidents. As a novelist, I believed I could explore race relations and police brutality in a way that our so-called ‘national conversations’ have failed to do.”

“Hands Up” certainly does further that conversation, with complex characters who take the reader on an emotional journey. 

The character of Jade Wakefield, the sister of the victim, Tyrell, is strong, relatable and utterly damaged. Throughout the novel, Jade struggles to channel her anger into constructive results and to refrain from behaving off her rash impulses. That anger comes in many forms — anger at the police who killed her unarmed brother and anger at her father, who abandoned his family years ago, leaving her to fill the role of adult after her mother fell apart. As the backbone of her family, Jade is both impregnable and fragile. Part of what makes Jade so relatable is that she is utterly human; she is flawed. Jade makes mistakes, she doubts herself and she is shrouded in nearly impenetrable grief.

“My goal, whether as a reporter or as a novelist, has always been to get the details right. I owe that to the people, characters and themes that I cover. I may not always succeed,” Clark said, “but I constantly strive for authenticity. Therefore, you can imagine how upsetting it was not only to write but also research all the upsetting moments in this novel. For example, Jade has a problem with self-harm. Since I have a niece who struggles with mental illness and self-harm, I had some pretty difficult conversations with her to make sure that was portrayed accurately and sensitively.”

Tyrell’s father, Kelly Randolph, is similarly complex. Kelly abandoned his family years earlier for another woman. The first time he sees his son in 10 years is when his son is lying in a coffin. Kelly’s character, perhaps the least likable of the three main characters, is nonetheless compelling. He is giving all he can to redeem himself for his past criminal activity and treatment of his family, yet no matter what he does, he is unable to escape that past. Kelly’s many failures will lead the reader to shake their head sadly, because the reader wants Kelly to succeed, wants Kelly to become the man he wants to be.

Of the three main characters, Ryan Quinn, the police officer who shoots and kills Tyrell, is the most captivating. Ryan has grown up in a white bubble, with his only real exposure to black people — prior to becoming a police officer — being when his father, also a police officer, was killed by a black man when Ryan was a child. Since that time, his father’s partner, Greg Byrnes, has been a surrogate father, injecting his racist beliefs into everyday routines; this only worsens when Greg becomes Ryan’s partner on the police force. 

But after shooting Tyrell, Ryan begins to question his own unconscious racism and begins forcing himself to confront it. This book manages to make Ryan sympathetic, while condemning police who racially profile and allow their prejudices to control them. 

Interestingly, Ryan is the only character who narrates his own sections. Jade’s and Kelly’s chapters are written in the omniscient third person, while Ryan is telling his own story. As such, the reader is truly riding along with Ryan as he struggles with what he has done and what led to it.

“I initially told his story in third person, as I did for the other two protagonists,” Clark said. “Yet when I first read his story, it felt lacking somehow. I’m not sure if that was because of Ryan’s race or profession or for some other reason. The protagonist in my debut novel was a white CIA assassin, and I told his story in third person without any qualms. But in the first draft for this novel, Ryan’s story paled badly in comparison to the narratives of Jade Wakefield and Kelly Randolph, and there was no escaping that. So I decided to change his story to first person, and then his words began popping off the page.”

The first-person treatment certainly helped bring Ryan’s character to life. According to Clark, Ryan is the character with whom he identifies most.

“Ironically, it would probably be Ryan. While Jade and Kelly were inspired by family and friends that I grew up with, there was no real-life counterpart for Ryan,” Clark said. “But I think most of us can identify with his role as an everyman of sorts and an embodiment of a culture that, if not racist, has certainly allowed racism to flourish. It’s much easier to ignore casual racism than to confront it. But silence is complicity.”

The main criticism for this book would be the pacing. There are times the plot seems rushed, with characters having breakthrough revelations much more quickly than seems plausible. Nevertheless, the epiphanies were bound to happen and are portrayed realistically and poignantly.

Though this topic is incredibly complex and fraught, these conversations are necessary, and Clark tackles them with sensitivity, insight and deftness in “Hands Up.”

“One of the final sentiments I hope comes through is the realization of how challenging it is to solve racism,” Clark said. “Remember all that talk about America becoming a post-racial society because of Barack Obama’s presidency? I always considered that belief delusional. Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, many Americans are finally reckoning with the country’s legacy of racism.”

“Hand’s Up” was printed by WiDo Publishing and can be purchased at Clark’s first novel, “Citizen Kill,” was also printed by WiDo Publishing.