JM Holmes believes in dialogue. The author of the debut collection How Are You Going to Save Yourself, an unsentimental debut tracing the development of four young black men, is so focused on capturing cadences and ramblings and silences that his lyricism, his depth of prose, pops with quiet authority. The bulk of the book’s opening story — titled “What’s Wrong With You? What’s Wrong With Me?” — is pure, loose conversation, spurred by an initial inquiry: “How many white women you been with?” Characters deflect, joke, lash out, turn violent — introducing themselves to the reader as they grapple with the question. And then, when one finally opens up to unsettling effect, Holmes takes a step back, surveying the moment with searing simplicity: “Still he was silent, trying to lock something inside, back where it belonged.”
Particularly in coming-of-age fiction, dialogue can be a liability; quips can mask nuance, and realism is aspired to far more often than it’s reached. But dialogue is the engine, the power, of How Are You Going to Save Yourself. Holmes’ uncanny ear is so delicately rendered that the book not only bursts with life during each back-and-forth, but it evolves, steeped as it is in the rhythms of family squabbles and serious discussions and, most centrally, friends shooting the s—t. Holmes’ literary musicality shines in that way. The stunning entrant “Be Good to Me,” for instance, sets up a dreamy new romance and draws, through discomfiting interactions, the fine lines between sex and power, agency and victimhood, before capping things on a devastating note. “Everything Is Flammable” is less harrowing, more somber, as narrator Gio reconsiders his friendship with Rye, a hotshot firefighter dealing drugs on the side. Their dance of walking and talking simultaneously evokes their long history and their feeling out of step, with the melody lost.
How Are You Going to Save Yourself moves to these familiar, lifelike beats, and achieves an electrifying singularity in the process. Though pitched and structured as a story collection, this is a book of novelistic richness, and not just because we follow its characters from tale to tale — the longing, the regret, the sheer sense of life builds and builds, with Holmes planting plot seeds that sprout, suddenly, as enormous emotional payoffs. The second story, “The Legend of Lonnie Lion,” details Gio’s tormented relationship with his father, a symbol of the American Dream slipping away; as Gio gets older, finding success as a hip-hop artist, you feel his father’s ghost pass through nearly every paragraph.
The sense of loss is extraordinary here. There’s a lot of bad behavior for the reader to consider, bleakness to spare. If not overwhelming, How Are You Going to Save Yourself is certainly tough, entrusting its players’ words (and, perhaps more importantly, lack thereof) to communicate what their actions cannot. The trick doesn’t work every time. But the message sings throughout, and the final blow Holmes delivers is inescapably staggering. To say this book is about race in America is to state the obvious. More significantly, it’s a book about trauma and socialization and, as is quoted early in the book, James Baldwin’s “Trap of History” — the shackles of the past. Holmes’ contribution is to not unpack these themes theoretically, or even via plot. It’s by simply pushing us to listen to human beings. The book ends by mirroring the first story’s shocking reveal, only with a grim twist. The very last line of dialogue goes, “Say it!” It may not seem like much on the surface. But read How Are You Going to Save Yourself through: In the context of its climax, this final line contains centuries of pain — a fitting place for this collection to end. B+