Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family

Mitchell S. Jackson. Scribner, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5011-3170-7
Novelist Jackson (The Residue Years) gives an unvarnished look at urban life in this memoir about growing up black and poor in 1990s Portland, Ore. As the subtitle references, this is more than Jackson’s story, and as he traces his great-grandparents’ “exodus” from Alabama to Portland and the subsequent lives of his relatives—and their struggles with addiction, prostitution, and incarceration—he captures the cyclical nature of poverty and neglect. Jackson doesn’t shy from describing his own life of crime, drugs, violence, and womanizing in vivid and unflinching detail, like when he gets paged to a drug deal only to find his mother waiting to buy from him. The prose is a stunning mix of second-person observations of various unnamed males in his family (“post a dubious decision to drop out of college your sophomore year you find yourself ‘Sir-Yes-Sir’ing’ at a naval base”) and historical and religious references that he incorporates to tell his story. Interwoven with sections called “Survivor Files,” which recount moments when the lives of those family members changed (such as when one relative found out that his daughter from a one-night stand had been adopted by the mother’s new husband, and he realized he would never get to know her because he never would try), Jackson plays out his life’s “revision”—getting out of jail, pursuing an education—against a backdrop of self- and social critique. Thanks to Jackson’s fresh voice, this powerful autobiography shines an important light on the generational problems of America’s oft-forgotten urban communities. (Mar.)

This review has been updated to reflect changes to the final text of the book that were not included in PW's review copy.

Reviewed on: 11/26/2018
Release date: 03/05/2019
Genre: Nonfiction
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