The main character in Hell of a Book by Jason Mott, an unnamed famous writer whom I refer to as The Author, is as uncommitted to moral principles as he is unreliable in his narration. Throughout the novel, it’s challenging for readers to untangle the relationship between The Author (who narrates much of the story in the first-person), Soot (whose story is told in the third-person omniscient), and The Kid (who is narrated in third-person limited via the Author’s first-person voice).
What does Mott’s knotty narrative style tell us about his main character, the Author? To explore this question further, I mix up analytical methods by looking at the quantitative data as well as close readings of passages of interest. And in the end it led me to uncover a hidden epilogue in the book.
Disclaimer: Before I proceed, please note that there are spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read or completed the book, I advise you to stop reading right now. You can still explore the literary data in a way that won’t necessarily spoil the story for you by using this Plots tool I created here. But if you read on, you do so at your own risk. OK, let’s proceed.
Technically, there are two main stories narrated in the book: The Author’s and Soot’s. However, it is The Kid that complicates the narration for readers. Though The Kid appears only via The Author’s descriptions, readers cannot help but wonder if The Kid and Soot are somehow related. In the topsy-turvy world of The Author, anything seems possible.
But it is not quite so simple. Soot’s experiences seem to have happened decades prior, and The Kid seems more a contemporary of The Author.
Perhaps the literary data can help make sense of things, whether we are talking about three characters or three personages of one character. To begin, let’s look at samples of each of the narration types in the story to demonstrate precisely what these knotty twists look like for The Author, Soot, and The Kid.
Readers don’t learn the name of the story’s main character, whom I refer to here as The Author (not to be confused with the book’s author Jason Mott, whom I refer to as Mott). The Author’s narrative voice is so often thoroughly engaging, with shocking retellings or perspectives that make it hard to stop reading. His is a powerful I. Take, for instance, the way we meet The Author as he narrowly escapes the consequence of a late night copulation with a married woman, her husband in livid pursuit:
It’s 3 a.m. and I’m somewhere in the Midwest–one of those flat states where everyone seems nicer than they should be. I’m in a hotel. In the hallway. I’m running. No, actually, I’m sprinting. I’m sprinting down this midwestern hotel hallway. Did I mention I’m naked? Because I am.From the chapter that begins, “The thing to remember is…” in Hell of a Book
For so many reasons, Soot’s story is heart-wrenching: the innocence he conveys, the bullying he endures, and trauma he witnesses. Mott chooses to write Soot’s chapters in the third-person omniscient point of view. When we first meet Soot, he is practicing his ability to be unseen with his parents:
It was the words “safe and unseen” that made his father smile. It was the boy’s favorite smile, like he was watching his father gain everything he wanted out of his life.From the chapter that begins, “In the corner of the small…” in Hell of a Book
Readers only know The Kid through The Author’s narration. When The Kid makes his first appearance, readers are also beginning to suspect that The Author’s memories and declarations might not be wholly reliable. Here is how readers first meet The Kid:
I turn to find a kid standing beside my table.
I peg him at about ten years old. A little gangly , meek, and nerdy-looking, you might say. Like the kind of kid who’s spent too much time in books and not enough time grabbing life by the short and curlies…From the chapter that begins, “The thing to remember is…” in Hell of a Book
Readers are forced to experience The Kid’s story through the narrative supervision of The Author. It’s an ingenious technique when you think about it: We learn later that The Author imagines The Kid, so it is befitting for readers to be kept at arm’s length from the phantom. It’s not dissimilar to what John Milton does in Paradise Lost when he writes his unfallen characters, like God. Milton’s characterization of God is distant and commanding, hardly relatable to readers. But that’s Milton’s point. Every one of Milton’s readers is marked by sin. So, of course God feels removed. Satan, on the other hand, well, Milton writes a Satan that we as readers can’t help but to vibe with. And why shouldn’t we? Satan is fallen, just like us.
But for Mott, it is The Author that he wants readers to feel most connected to. He gives Soot the narrative distance of 3rd person omniscient and The Kid a veritable narrative bodyguard.
Just how intertwined are The Author, Soot, and The Kid? Readers might suspect that the three are constantly braided like three threads in a single cord. But that is not true. Let’s count how often words associated with the characters appear. I calculated the frequency of words related to the Author as I (I, I’d, I’ll, I’m, I’ve), Kid (Kid, Kid’s), and Soot (Soot, Soot’s). For sure, the frequency of the word I is inflated because plenty of characters other than The Author use the word throughout the novel. To offset the lopsided presence of I in the story, I decided to compare the usage of these key words relatively. Meaning, the total number of times all those words were used in each chapter, how often was each word used as a percentage as compared to the others? Not perfect, but sufficient for now. The result is striking.
Of the thirty chapters in the book, only seven chapters include references to all three characters at once. What’s more, in those seven chapters, there is always one of the three characters (I, Soot, Kid) that dominates in frequency. Never are they anywhere close to balanced in their usage. For instance, in Chapter 3 Kid is used only 4% of the time compared to I used 30% of the time and Soot more than double that.
Soot, All Alone
Observing the stacked bar graph, I am drawn to a chapter where, in fact, Soot’s name appears 100% of the time. It is the only chapter in the book that one of the three characters appears without either of the other two. Chapter 11. It is a short chapter, but one with great narrative significance.
In Chapter 11, Soot witnesses his father being shot by a local police officer. It is night. Soot’s father had been out jogging and was stopped just yards from his own home. As the chapter opens, his dad stands with his hands up and a gun aimed at his body. Soot’s mother comes out to the porch horrified by what she sees. Soot tries to observe outside, but his mom tells him to get inside. So he watches from the window. He watches it all.
As I reflect upon the book’s ending, Chapter 11 seems to be the origin story of both The Author as readers know him and of The Kid’s ghostly presence in the story. Soot is The Author as a child, The Kid a present-day hallucination that links racial injustices of the past with the present. As readers will learn later, Chapter 11 marks the moment we are led to believe caused Soot’s trauma-induced psychotic break, which readers experience via his adult self as The Author.
For evidence of his fractured state, recall how The Author replies to Renny’s question about whether his mother was a kind woman.
“I don’t even remember anymore,” I reply. Which, believe it or not, is the truth. “I’ve all but forgotten my mother. I can tell you the facts about her. I can tell you that she existed—that much is inherently provable by the fact that I exist. I can tell you that she was short. That she had long hair which she almost always wore in a ponytail. But that’s about the extent of what I remember about her. All those years that she spent loving me and taking care of me have been reduced down to nothing more than a few simple cosmetic facts. Shrunk down to even less than a photograph in my mind. My mother is, more or less, a myth I carry around inside of me. She exists only because I can’t conceive of a world in which she did not exist.From the chapter that begins, “Hell of a Book book tour takes me out…”
What’s more, Soot’s presence does more than round out the reader’s understanding of The Author as an individual. Soot also represents the institutional injustices that perpetuate systemic racism in the United States, which becomes clearer when The Author visits his hometown on the book tour. The Author fears that visit to his core.
I just know that I can’t go home again. Too many thoughts there. Too many memories. Too much reality. Too much fiction. Too many blurred lines and not enough alcohol in this whole world to set them straight.
If readers needed to confirm their suspicion that The Author and Soot were to parts of the same person, Mott slyly repeats the word “too”, which invokes its homophonic cousin “two”. The Author is afraid to remember Soot. And with good reason. The Author fears a return home because that is the site of his spiritual and mental divorce from himself, a trauma that split his identity.
Uncovering the Hidden Epilogue
In the end, what makes Hell of a Book a powerful read is the way it attempts to immerse readers in the fractured experiences of one Black man whose fragility, even if he himself does not acknowledge it for so much of the story, is the tragic consequence of the very world readers themselves occupy. The violent injustices that surround Blackness in America are as institutionally perpetuated as they are individually experienced: by The Author, by Soot, by The Kidd–and by readers. Perhaps the most important part of the story for readers is not any particular scene or line. It is the hidden epilogue that Mott forces readers themselves to compose when they put the book down and live their lives. Every reader of Hell of a Book participates in the composition of its epilogue, defining the future of race in America with their own words and silences, actions and inactions.