Mitchell S. Jackson is the author of Survival Math. His debut novel The Residue Years was praised by publications, including The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Times (London). The novel won the Ernest Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence, and it was also a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Jackson’s honors include fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, TED, the Lannan Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Center for Fiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Salon, and Tin House, among other publications. He serves on the faculty at New York University and Columbia University.
Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by award-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson. Survival Math is about the calculations Mitchell made to survive his youth in 1990s Northeast Portland, and we wanted to reach out to you because it is absolutely perfect for book club discussion. The book explores difficult topics—addiction and gun play, masculinity and near-death experiences—all framed within the stories of the author and his family’s experiences in Portland. But of course, the book is about something much bigger than one family. Mitchell illuminates the forces that led his family and his community to this point, from the Great Migration to gentrification, and he does so with humor and style.
So far, the book has been praised by some of the most talented writers on the planet. Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward called the book “virtuosic.” Author of Orange Is the New Black Piper Kerman says Survival Math is “an unforgettable mix of sharp humor, wide interrogation, and indelible tragedy.” Pulitzer Prize winning poet Terrance Hayes says Mitchell’s “insights into how black men survive become insights of everyone’s survival.”
Excerpt: Survival Math
Survival Math EXODUS
My exodus occurs after years wandering the wilderness of my hometown, the crucible that included working a part-time, and only-time, gig at the Oregonian’s downtown insert facility stacking pallet after pallet of inky-ass newspapers. For bread to live. For bread to leave. The day in question, I got a phone call from someone who, for the love (and just maybe his liberty), I’ll call Brother A. Brother A called me to plead a ride to his apartment in the burbs to sweep for dope after his dope-dealing roommate, a dude who’d already done a nickel in the pen on a drug charge (which, by the way, is not judgment, but context), had just got knocked by the Feds. Brother A explained he needed the ride because his main squeeze had wrecked his Jeep, and he couldn’t think of anyone more fitting than me, of all people on God’s verdant earth, me, to be the one to shuttle him.
Heeeeeelllll no! That should have been my answer. But that was not my answer. My answer tugged me out of my job at the end of my shift and into the forest-evergreen Lexus I’d bought in the bygone unblessed days when I sold more than weed. It sent me bolting out of my job and into my ride to swoop Brother A from someplace close and hit Highway 26 with most dubious sense.
Guessing now is as good a time as ever to mention that this was the age during which I might’ve been selling weed—twenty sacks, eighths, half and whole zips, and in the most blessed of times, half and whole pounds. Selling chronic, stacking newspapers, and throwing parties because evermore this brother, a brother, every brother should diversify his hustle. No mights or maybes to that.
Memories from that age, hypothetical and otherwise, seldom feature date stamps, but I can assure you this incident occurred May 2002 AD, which I know for truth because one of my homeboys and me had just thrown a well-attended Memorial Day shindig, and between my cut of the door and profits from the weed I may have been selling, I had a knot of bills in my inky work jeans—which accounts for why at the time I was feeling at least extra medium about myself. Brother A and I traded lightweight banter en route, and before I knew it, we’d reached his apartment complex, grounds of such expanse, there was plenty of time for my pulse to cease between the moment I pulled into the lot and when I found a place to park my tree-colored ride. Can’t speak for Brother A, but in that interstice of arriving and stepping a wary foot out of my ride, I had visions of police swarming us from bushes and vans, seizing discomfited me, slamming my cheek against unforgiving asphalt, and KABLOWING! on cuffs.
We did not—word to Yahweh—get ambushed that moment. We hustled past a passel of blithe youngsters and mounted a flight and a flight and a flight of stairs and stood at the threshold of his apartment door (my heart athunder) and asked each other again and for the last time if we should enter, which, inhale, of course we did.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
No one was inside. Good sense says I should’ve left Brother A to brave his fate alone but instead I sat on the living room couch while he proceeded to sweep his roommate’s room and the hall closets and every place else he could think to look. He didn’t find any meth, but he did find cooking supplies and utensils, which he took straight to the kitchen to scrub and scour. Meanwhile, I sat on the living room couch doing my best impression of ecclesiastical calm.
“Man, I can’t believe we was so spooked,” I said.
“Yeah, we silly,” he said. “Like the police worried about us.”
He paused and motioned at me. “Shit, I almost forgot. Come check this out.” This is when Brother A led me to his bedroom, pulled a pound of weed from a stash spot, and flaunted a sample. “This some killer,” he said. “Smell it.” What may or may not have happened next now seems like an act of intercession bestowed by my great-grandmama or some other churchgoing kin. That act, amen, was using my shirt to grab the plastic bag and inspect a few fluffy, sticky, fragrant stems. I put the weed back and mentioned how fast it would sell and may or may not have asked him if he could cop for me.
He and I strolled back into the living room—me to the couch and Brother A back to washing possible evidence down the drain. Seconds later I heard footsteps on the stairs. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Heard them and said to myself, Here come those kids. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Thought to myself, Wow, them some heavy-footed-ass kids. PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER, PATTER! Mused, Boy, there must be more kids than I thought. That’s when Brother A hustled over to the peephole, said, “Oh, shit! POLICE!” and broke for his bedroom.
Before I could move, a mob of police, sheriff, and DEA bum-rushed into Brother A’s crib. “Get on the ground! Get on the ground now! Keep your hands where we can see them! Get down! Get down!”
Oh. My. God! I thought, and dropped to my knees then prostrate.
Brother A darted into the living room and ranted, “Let me see your warrant. Let me see your warrant,” and in an instant, they spun him face to wall and cuffed him. One officer jerked me off the carpet and asked if I was carrying drugs, if I had anything in my pockets that might cut or poke him. No, I said. And he emptied my pockets, beheld my cell phone and pager and the knot of cash—most of which, let me remind you, I’d made from my Memorial Day shindig and some of which I may or may not have made from serving fat sacks of chronic. More officers appeared, one of them tugging a stout German shepherd. That same officer informed me that if the dog hit on anything from my pockets, he’d confiscate it. Read the rest of this entry »