State of the Nation
David Jackson Ambrose
The TMG Firm, 2018
There has a been a surge of African-American literature not just in the public eye but in the publishing world. This literature by People of Color (POC), these writers, have always been present working, writing, performing, publishing, and advocating. It’s been unfortunate the turmoil caused by racist, aggressive policing has been the spark that’s turned white eyes towards reading and experiencing this literature.
It would be naive to separate the political from the personal. It would also be willfully ignorant to not see the quality of this literature as firmly standing on its own merit. The superb work of Angie Thomas, Ijeoma Oluo, Brittney Cooper, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Mychal Denzel Smith just to name a few of the many aren’t creating just African-American, they are creating some of the most important contemporary American literature. These non-fiction writers give us a breadth of knowledge but it is left to the novelists and poets to show us the depth of these experiences.
With his novel State of the Nation, David Jackson Ambrose is attempting to nestle his work into this finally expanding canon giving us a vivid narrative. The story revolves around three friends–Santos, Dion, and Luqman–struggling to forge their own identity in the late 70s/early 80s in a culture contemptuous of their social class and race. Ambrose has given readers nothing less than his own version of Great American Novel. It is a challenging and invigorating book showing great promise.
Ambrose’s prose moves fluidly between scenes usually focused on a particular character. For example, early on we learn how Santos has had to survive as his mother is forced to leave town for housekeeping work: “He had quickly become adept at gauging the level of interest the adult gaze contained. There were minute signals that telegraphed parental…perfunctory…predatory.” The plot of the book has a taste of crime fiction as it involves the Atlanta Child Murders but is so well immersed in the deep character studies as to take a back seat. It becomes a proxy for the constant background noise of the racism hemming the lives of the boys. Taking into account that black bodies are still egregiously murdered in our contemporary time, readers can easily occupy the anxiety of these characters: “‘Killing black babies ain’t nothing new. It’s been going on since before I was a baby, and it will be going on long after I’m dead and gone.'” Often, the escape for these boys is in pop culture–a grim irony given it feeds on and disregards them but it is their slow build of friendship that truly buttresses them.
There are times when State of the Nation feels like it’s slightly rambling, a bit too full meaning although Ambrose gives detailed attention to each character the narrative seems to drag. However, given how well Ambrose portrays his characters (I am most impressed with the seemingly autistic Jonas, Santos’ little brother, an excerpt can be read here), it is easy to let this criticism fall to the level of quibble.
The power of Ambrose’s novel is in the brilliant way he weaves the past with our contemporary moment with each reflecting and more precisely defining the other. Readers are given a moral novel far surpassing the hollow, myopic literature usually encountered yet there’s never a moment when State of the Nation feels preachy, glib, or forced.
As a first novel, Ambrose has given readers a quiet, resonant gem.
About the Author
David Jackson Ambrose spent his childhood dumpster diving for coverless paperback novels behind independent bookstores in West Chester, PA, immersing himself in the fictitious (and sometimes trashy) worlds of Faulkner, Steinbeck, Jaqueline Susann and Harold Robbins in between stints of tadpole hunting and stealing fans from the trucks of the old Lasko factory and warehouse. He then moved to an adolescence of writing comic books that featured his baby sister and brother, keeping them entertained while their mother worked as an accountant for Sperry Univac, and writing serial novels, whose chapters were circulated in the homerooms of Upper Merion High School. David received his B.A. in Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He has an M.A. in Writing Studies from St. Joseph’s University and received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Temple University. David has presented at the National Conference for Teachers of English on “Engaging the Marginalized Student” and has received an honorable mention for his exploration of race and social work for AWP’s 2016 Intro Journals Project entitled, “There’s a Nigger in the House.” His short story, “Juxtapose,” was published in the 2014 edition of Nota Bene, the national magazine of Phi Theta Kappa honor society.