The Back Room

With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.

Letting a book into your head

makes me wanna holler

20 years ago, when it was first published, I purchased Nathan McCall’s autobiography Makes Me Wanna Holler.

I finally read it this weekend.

There are many reasons to not read a book.  Often the times comes when the book is no longer worth keeping around, even it was unread.  I have given away hundreds of books and I do not have a reason why this book made it this far.  It wasn’t a gift and it doesn’t have any special significance; autographed, first edition or anything.  It’s just this survivor of a book, a time capsule of the excitement I had for new authors with a journalist background and an original voice.

I don’t know why I didn’t read it.  It became a New York Times bestseller and even had approbation from a black guy I worked with who read the book on his lunch breaks.  Trying to seem cooler than I actually was I told Steven I was reading “that book as well”.  He smiled and nodded his head.

But still I didn’t read it.

Maybe I wasn’t ready for it.  I was so entrenched in my identity crisis there was no room for a book about the struggles of a black man in America during the post-Civil Rights Era.  The books I read were from monologists and novelists dealing with their own self-identification issues, writers like Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian and books like American Psycho and My Idea of Fun.  I was still nursing the wounds of bullying and abuse and my fear of black men remained.  It was a big book, over 400 pages and seemed daunting and irredeemingly time consuming.

Recently, we moved to a new place, a smaller place and many books were axed.  This book not only delayed execution but even made it to the plum spot in our apartment of beloved books, essays read or would read over the next year.  The other death row inmates sit in several boxes down in my parents’ basement.  Despite this foregone conclusion, to be definitely read by next summer, as more books were pulled from the living room bookcases to the bedroom bookshelf for prominence as “possibly the next book to be chosen” Makes Me Wanna Holler languished at the bottom of the tall bookcase.

Suddenly, a couple weeks ago, after finishing a book, my wife’s inevitable question came:  What are you going to read next?  She could see the small book pile, spines out, facing our bed and it was from there I usually chose.  I would try to have a novel, an essay, a history book and an autobiography for consistent variety.  The pile had dwindled down and I recited the books on the shelf, declaring their reasons to be chosen next.  And then I said, “Of course there’s always a dark horse.”  And scurried into the living room to select a possibly forgotten gem.

My eyes grazed over McCall’s autobiography, then pulled it off the shelf.  I recited its worth to my wife, and giving it its day in court placed it on the bedroom bookshelf.  And there it again sat, as books other than it were chosen.  An even darker horse was in buying new books from Amazon and reading those, jumping the queue like entitled one-percenters.

I finished another Julian Barnes novel (damn, the guy is so fucking good) and my wife’s question came.  I smiled at her and pulled down five possibilities from the shelf, bringing them into bed.  I didn’t need to plead these books’ cases.  These inmates, scrubbed up for yet another go at the parole board had been already denied several times.  Then I looked at the shelf.  A couple thick paperbacks sat along with a lone spine-out hardcover.  I laughed, showing her how ridiculous it was.  How despite holding onto it, it remained the most resistant book I have ever owned.

I got off the bed and pulled the book.  In bed, I stared at tough angry Nathan McCall glaring at me saying “Put me the fuck back, boy.  You know you ain’t gonna read me.  You ain’t ever gonna read me.  You just gonna keep me around like some token black relic of a fucked-up time in your life.  Go on, bitch.  I dare you.  Go on.  Pick me up.  You spineless chickenshit whitey.”  I looked at my wife, telling her, I think this book is mocking me.

“You should read it.”

I heard her words over the voice in my head.  I sighed.


It started out extremely readable, told in a conversational tone, with lots of dialogue.  I wasn’t glossing over it but I was surprisingly unaffected at the harsh depictions of violence McCall engaged in up to age 15.  Then I reached the chapter entitled Trains.

Getting past that chapter I began reading the book differently.  And this new perspective carried through the end.  The back-breaking injustice of being black and living in America.  The choices men make and the emotional strain dictating those choices.

It isn’t a perfect book but it is an important book.  One that cuts into the mind of a black man, living day to day with so much anger it sprays in all different directions until it rests uncomfortably within himself.  Even towards the end, when he is starting to try and make amends for the heinous and seemingly unforgivable atrocities he inflicted on his victims, his anger, self-loathing and rage is still present.

So many times in this book the white man makes him so angry he wants to commit more violence.  So many times his ex-wife, lawyers, police, co-workers make him so angry he wants to commit more violence.   It is interesting the number of times this happens and the number of times he takes no responsibility for his part in the situation.  He successfully self-talks and avoids physical violence as an adult but his insight into his own psyche is limited.

The book shines an ugly light on race in the 70’s and 80’s.  Thirty years later and the same problems remain.  That is how insidious the problem.  It is a complex issue that needs a complete overhaul.  Responsibility must be taken, however fairness and equality needs to exist for progress to be made.

Or as Malcolm X said, to paraphrase, if you stick a knife into a man’s back nine inches and pull it out six inches that’s not progress.  Even if you pull it out nine inches that’s not progress.  You have to start to heal the wound.  They won’t even admit the knife is there.

See Adam Hochschild’s book review:


6 comments on “Letting a book into your head

  1. Lawrence Davis
    November 24, 2014

    Well Monk, you have gotten to the heart of it. The very essence of understanding America is understanding our race relations. We sweep it aside every day, and just push it to the corner, but it doesn’t go away. Thank you for this posting.

    Ojichan (jingeau)


    • Andrew Davis
      November 25, 2014

      It’s so ugly. And it gets uglier every day.
      Thank you for your comment.


  2. hassanizzo
    November 26, 2014

    I think I’ll search out a copy of this to read myself. Talking of authors with a journalistic background, have you read any of David Simon’s stuff?

    Here in England I feel like our problems with race and social class have gone backwards in the last few years. I also resent the fact that in the past few years – for the first time in my life – I have felt marginalised and stigmatised because of my colour, my name, the way I look. It seems like brown people are ‘the other’ these days for a whole host of reasons but to keep this short, I understand the frustration you describe the author as having.

    Experiencing things first hand I can say anger is sometimes the only reaction you seem able to reach for, although I have never allowed it to make me lash out or affect the way I view or interact with anyone. Without being too trite, I just have too much love in my heart to truly ever become cynical or pessimistic.

    As for books, the one currently mocking me is Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and loved it, but Gravity’s Rainbow just seems so daunting. I should just read it, I mean I did read Infinite Jest this year which is bigger and turned out to be one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.

    And finally, I’ve been meaning to read anything by Julian Barnes for a while now, I’ll have to get around to it.


    • Andrew Davis
      November 26, 2014

      I’ve read Homicide and The Corner and both are excellent examples of class reportage. I also have the DVD box sets of Homicide and The Wire. I am a huge David Simon fan!

      Skin color. Names. This truly is the depth of our intelligence these days?
      Your frustration and anger (if you had it) are justified and validated. Anger itself can be a great opportunity for growth. It often goes the other way, into selfishness. We live and we die by our choices, even when life has been shitty and prejudiced and just unfair… we live and die by our choices. That’s the one thing we have to give to someone else. My heart is breaking for my country right now and I’m having trouble writing it.

      Yeah. I have Gravity’s Rainbow. Also not read. I also have Shadow Country by Peter Mathiesson. Not read. And Infinite Jest. Hey. Good for you. I have read others of DWF’s but I cannot get past the first 150 pages of Infinite Jest before losing interest.

      Run don’t walk, to the store to pick up Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending. From there the dominoes will fall.

      Keep the love in your heart strong, my friend.


      • hassanizzo
        November 28, 2014

        Completely, our choices define us. I have similar sentiments about England but I hope we’ll wake up before we allow the cracks that are appearing to get worse.

        Yeah I’m a huge David Simon fan too, I was lucky enough to see him do a talk on the war on drugs when he visited London last year.

        I will definitely be getting the book you mentioned.


      • Andrew Davis
        November 28, 2014

        I sense we are in the middle of another era of Grand Fissure. Another huge problem is that one race appears to be speaking to another race as if they are endowed with all the advantages and trimmings of their own race. Or to put it another way, white people have no business trying to tell black people how they should be living their life. It is patronizing as proven by white people not for one second allowing black people to do the same. What gall. What nerve. What a mess.

        David Simon does an excellent job showing black lives without casting judgment.

        I’ve been having fun reading Will Self, Martin Amis, as well as Julian Barnes. All so wildly different and compulsive reading.


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This entry was posted on November 24, 2014 by in Books, Race, Reading and tagged , , , .

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