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Hell of a Book

National Book Award Winner and A Read with Jenna Pick (A Novel)

Author Jason Mott
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***2021 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER***

***THE NATIONAL BESTSELLER***

Winner of the 2021 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize Finalist, 2022 Chautauqua Prize Finalist, Willie Morris Award for Southern Writing Shortlist, 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize Shortlist, 2022 Maya Angelou Book Award Shortlist, 2022 Carnegie Medal Longlist

A Read With Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick!

An Ebony Magazine Publishing Book Club Pick! 

One of Washington Post's 50 Notable Works of Fiction | One of Philadelphia Inquirer's Best Books of 2021 | One of Shelf Awareness's Top Ten Fiction Titles of the Year | One of TIME Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books | One of NPR.org's "Books We Love" | EW’s "Guide to the Biggest and Buzziest Books of 2021" | One of the New York Public Library's Best Books for Adults | San Diego Union Tribune—My Favorite Things from 2021 | Writer's Bone's Best Books of 2021 | Atlanta Journal Constitution—Top 10 Southern Books of the Year | One of the Guardian's (UK) Best Ten 21st Century Comic Novels | One of Entertainment Weekly's 15 Books You Need to Read This June | On Entertainment Weekly's "Must List" | One of the New York Post's Best Summer Reading books | One of GMA's 27 Books for June | One of USA Today's 5 Books Not to Miss | One of Fortune's 21 Most Anticipated Books Coming Out in the Second Half of 2021 | One of The Root's PageTurners: It’s Getting Hot in Here | One of Real Simple's Best New Books to Read in 2021


An astounding work of fiction from New York Times bestselling author Jason Mott, always deeply honest, at times electrically funny, that goes to the heart of racism, police violence, and the hidden costs exacted upon Black Americans and America as a whole

In Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, a Black author sets out on a cross-country publicity tour to promote his bestselling novel. That storyline drives Hell of a Book and is the scaffolding of something much larger and more urgent: Mott’s novel also tells the story of Soot, a young Black boy living in a rural town in the recent past, and The Kid, a possibly imaginary child who appears to the author on his tour.

As these characters’ stories build and converge, they astonish. For while this heartbreaking and magical book entertains and is at once about family, love of parents and children, art and money, it’s also about the nation’s reckoning with a tragic police shooting playing over and over again on the news. And with what it can mean to be Black in America.

Who has been killed? Who is The Kid? Will the author finish his book tour, and what kind of world will he leave behind?  Unforgettably told, with characters who burn into your mind and an electrifying plot ideal for book club discussion, Hell of a Book is the novel Mott has been writing in his head for the last ten years. And in its final twists, it truly becomes its title.

I.

In the corner of the small living room of the small country house at the end of the dirt road beneath the blue Carolina sky, the dark-skinned five-year-old boy sat with his knees pulled to his chest and his small, dark arms wrapped around his legs and it took all that he had to contain the laughter inside the thrumming cage of his chest.

His mother, seated on the couch with her dark hands folded into her lap and her brow furrowed like Mr. Johnson's fields at the end of winter, pursed her lips and fidgeted with the fabric of the tattered gray dress she wore. It was a dress she'd bought before the boy even came into this world. It aged with him. Year upon year, the blue floral pattern faded, one shade of color at a time. The threads around the hem lost their grip on things. They broke apart and reached their dangling necks in every direction that might take them away. And now, after seven years of hard work, the dress looked as though it would not be able to hold its fraying fabric together much longer.

"Did you find him?" the boy's mother asked as her husband came into the room.

"No," the boy's father said. He was a tall man with large eyes and a long, gangly frame that had earned him the nickname "Skinniest Nigga Breathing" back when he was a boy. The name had stuck over the years, lashed across his back from childhood to manhood, and, having never found a cure for his almost mythological thinness, the man had taken to wearing long-sleeved clothes everywhere he went because the empty air held within the sleeves made him look larger than he was. At least, that was what he believed.

He was a man who had been afraid of the eyes of others for all of his life. How could he not want his child to learn the impossible trick of invisibility?

"It's okay," he said. "We'll find him soon. I know it. I'm sure that, wherever he is, he's fine. He can take care of himself. He's always going to be fine." He took a seat beside his wife on the tired brown couch and wrapped the spindly reeds of his fingers around the fidgeting doves that were her hands. He lifted them to his lips and kissed them. "He's a good kid," the father said. "He wouldn't just up and leave us. We'll find him."

"He's the best boy in the whole world," the mother said.

"Maybe he just went off into the woods to find some briarberries. I bet that's where he went."

"You think so?"

The father thought for a moment. "Not sure, but I'm hopeful, Dollface."

The boy's mother chuckled at "Dollface" and dabbed the corner of her eye. Was she crying?

The groundswell of laughter that had been tickling the boy's throat for so long finally-as he sat, invisible and unseen only an arm's length away-faded at the sight of his mother's tears. His arms tightened around his legs.

He shouldn't have done this. He shouldn't have made them worry like this. They were good parents and they hated worrying about him. A lead ball of regret formed in the boy's stomach. It rang and drummed through his entire body. He needed to stop this trick he was playing on them . . . but how?

What could he do? He was less than two feet from where his parents sat, but guilt over his mother's tears pushed down on the hands that would reach out and touch her and let her know he was there. It weighted down the tongue that would sing her name and free her from fear.

There was no way, his five-year-old mind figured, that he could let them know that it had all been a joke. He could never explain to them that this was all meant to be fun. Not just fun, a celebration! After all, he had done it! For three years now, his mother and father had been trying to teach him to become invisible, to become "The Unseen." That was the name the boy's father gave to it. He said the words with a fantastic tone. He spoke with his hands in the air, sweeping back and forth gently like he was playing some magical instrument. "You will become The Unseen," the boy's father said. He added an almost spooky "Ooooooo" to the end of it sometimes. "You'll be unseen and safe for as long as you live," his father said. ". . . Can you even imagine it?"

It was the words "unseen and safe" that made his father smile. It was the boy's favorite smile, like he was watching his father gain everything he had wanted out of his life.

Unseen and safe.

Sanctified words.

"What should we do?" his mother asked her husband.

"Should we just call it quits?" replied the boy's father. He put a spindly hand on his forehead and looked very dramatic all of a sudden, the way people in movies sometimes did. And, yet, the boy thought he saw the beginnings of a smile hiding in the shadows of his father's face. "I mean," the boy's father continued, "if he's gone, maybe we should make like a banana and split. We could pack it all up and head out west somewhere. I hear they got tons of kids out there who need a fine set of parents like us."

The boy's mother smiled as though her husband had told a joke. Humor was one of his gifts. His jokes painted the walls of his family's home in brushstrokes of laughter.

But, in spite of the fact that he knew his father was trying to be funny, the boy heard his words and imagined his parents leaving him and, once again, the sea of fear swelled up inside of him.

"No, no, no," said his mother.

And just like that, the fear ebbed.

"You're right," his father said. "We could never leave him. He's just too great. No other kid in this world like him. So what should we do?"

"I have an idea," the boy's mother declared. Excitement filled her voice and spilled over into the boy. His mother always had the best ideas.

"We'll cook everything he likes to eat. All of it. One big meal like they used to do back in the old days. And the smell of it will go out all over the world and find him. That'll bring him home!"

The boy almost cheered. A great dinner of all his favorite things. All of it spread out on the kitchen table, one dish after the other. The idea that the smell of the foods he loved could go out into the world and bring him home . . . it was like something from one of the books he read at bedtime: all myth, and dream, and splendor.

The boy's father leaned back for a moment and looked at the mother through squinted eyes. "His favorite foods?" he said, stroking his dark, narrow chin. "You reckon that'll work?"

"I know it will," his mother said. "He'll smell them. The chicken. The macaroni and cheese. Maybe even a sweet potato pie or two. He never could turn down sweet potato pie."

"Pie you say?" The boy's father licked his lips. "You could be onto something with this scheme of yours. It's got legs, I think. Just like you." He kissed his wife's neck and she laughed the light, lilting laugh that she sometimes did late at night when the two of them were alone in their bedroom with the door locked.

"Stop that," she giggled.

"I don't know," the father said, his mouth a wry grin. "I still think we might could go out west and find a new kid. I hear they make some out there that actually like to eat their vegetables."

The mother laughed and the boy almost laughed too. "No," she chuckled. "We'll cook and he'll come back to us. Just you watch."

She stood then and brushed off her old dress as she always did and she went into the kitchen. For a moment, the father stayed in the living room and stroked his chin again. "Well, kid," he mused, "wherever you are in this world I hope that you know that I would never move out west and try to find another son. You're the only ankle-biter I could ever want."

Then he stood and went into the kitchen and began helping his wife.

Before long, the house billowed with the smells and sounds of the boy's favorite food. The chicken fried in a heavy black skillet and the macaroni bubbled and baked in the oven. There were sugared strawberries, and muscadine grapes, and leftover pound cake that the boy had forgotten was still in the house. Even though he was still hidden, his stomach growled so loudly that he feared it would give him away. But his mother and father didn't seem to hear and so he was able to continue to sit-even with the hunger in the pit of his stomach-and close his eyes and smell all of the dancing aromas.

In that moment, invisible and buried in his parents' love, he was happier than he had ever been. And soon, in spite of his hunger, he was asleep.

He awoke to the feeling of his father lifting him in his arms.

"There you are," his father said.

He carried his son into the dining room, where the table was covered with all of the boy's favorite foods.

"There he is!" the boy's mother screamed at the sight of her son. Then she hugged him so tightly that he could hardly breathe. That was always his favorite type of hug. It was like melting into the summertime earth.

And when the hug was over, his mother kissed him and asked, "Where were you?"

"I did it," the boy exclaimed. "I really did it!"

"Did what?" his father asked.

"I was invisible!"

His parents' eyes went wide as star magnolias.

"No!" his father exclaimed with joy, looking very dramatic like TV people again.

"You really did it?" his mother asked, equally elated.

"Yep," the boy chirped, almost laughing. "I was in the living room this whole time. Unseen just like you said. It really worked, Mama!" 

Then his mother hugged him and the three of them danced and laughed and smiled like they never had before. In that moment, the worries that had always hung over their heads were suddenly gone. It was as though all three of them might suddenly levitate off of the floor, float up into the blue sky that sprawled itself out long and wide above the small country house that the family called home.

The next day, the boy, still drunk on sweets and wonder, asked his father: "You really couldn't see me, could you?"

"It doesn't matter if I saw you or not," his father said. "All that matters is that you felt safe."


II.

The thing to remember is this: above all else, this is a love story. Don't ever forget that.

But now that that's out of the way, let's get acquainted:

It's 3 a.m.

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 that I'm naked? Because I am.

Also: I'm being chased.

About fifteen feet behind me-also sprinting, but not naked-is a very large man wielding a very large wooden coat hanger. Sometimes he holds it like a baton. Other times he holds it above his head like a battle-axe. He's surprisingly fast for a man his size.

The very large man with the very large coat hanger is draped in Old Navy couture: beige straight-fit stain-resistant khakis, argyle sweater vest, brown twill boat shoes that may or may not be faux leather. He's a family man for sure. 2.3 kids. Dog named Max. Cat named Princess. Aquarium that's on its twelfth goldfish named "Lucky." He drives a Camry and lives on a cul-de-sac in a home surrounded by a picket fence. There's an in-ground pool in the backyard. He's got a healthy 401(k).

He's everything a responsible adult should be.

He looks to be about the same age as I am-leaving the decadent comfort of thirty and reluctantly knocking on the grizzled front door of forty. And for an instant, as the two of us sprint down this luxurious hotel hallway-feet thumping on the carpet, lungs burning, arms pumping like oil wells-I think about stopping and asking him how he built that life. How he made it all come together so perfectly. How he managed to do everything I've been unable to. I want to hear his secret.

But as I take a look back over my shoulder, I see him raise that coat hanger of his into a battle-axe position and shout, "My wife! That's my wife! We made babies together!"

No. This won't be the day I find out the secret of people like him. All I can do now is try to stay ahead of that coat hanger. So I put my head down and try to remember what my high school track coach told me: "High knees. High head. High speed."

  • WINNER | 2021
    National Book Award
  • WINNER | 2021
    Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction
  • LONGLIST | 2022
    Carnegie Medal
  • LONGLIST | 2021
    Aspen Words Literary Prize
  • FINALIST | 2021
    Joyce Carol Oates Prize
  • FINALIST | 2021
    National Book Award
  • LONGLIST | 2021
    Joyce Carol Oates Prize
Praise for Hell of a Book

“It is a story of love and family. It is powerful…poignant and beautiful and what makes me so excited is I cannot wait to be part of these conversations…It’s a story of race, family, love, and justice. It’s original and Jason Mott is a talent.”—Jenna Bush Hager, “Read with Jenna”

Hell of a Book more than lives up to its title. Playful, searching, raw, and necessary, this writing, this voice, this novel twisted me up and turned me inside out, dazzled me, surprised me and moved me.”—Charles Yu, author of the National Book Award winner Interior Chinatown

“What a powerful, timely, and provocative novel. Jason's ability to take on deeply important themes with both poignancy and humor makes for an extraordinary emotional rollercoaster of a read, and I tore through this profoundly moving novel in a day but have been thinking about it ever since. Thank you, Jason Mott, for sharing this story with the world.”—Abi Daré, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl with the Louding Voice

Hell of a Book teetertotters real life and fiction in a dizzying yet dazzling exploration of exploration itself. Jason Mott brings much of what he's known for and a lot of what we do not expect to this inventive offering.”—Kiese Laymon, author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

“At turns hilarious and moving, thoughtful and madcap, Hell of a Book manages simultaneously to address momentous issues and ask pressing questions, while somehow remaining light on its feet, which is a hell of an accomplishment.”Jonathan Evison, bestselling author of West of Here and Small World

“Mott’s unflinching meditation on racism, violence, and navigating life as a Black man in America is a surreal and searing triumph.”—Shelf Awareness for Readers (starred review)

“Hell of a Book is a masterwork of balance, as Mott navigates the two narratives and their delicate tonal distinctions. A surrealist feast of imagination that’s brimming with very real horrors, frustrations, and sorrows, it can break your heart and make you laugh out loud at the same time, often on the same page. This is an achievement of American fiction that rises to meet this particular moment with charm, wisdom, and truth.”—BookPage (starred review)

“Stunning…Mott’s poetic, cinematic novel tackles what it means to live in a country where Black people perpetually ‘live lives under the hanging sword of fear.’”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A singular writer who refused to be boxed in and proves it again with yes, a hell of a book.”—CBS Saturday Morning

“Maddening, disorienting, and illuminating.”Booklist

“A story that is at once a paean to familial love and friendship and a reckoning with racism and police violence. By turns playful and surprising and intimate, a moving meditation on being Black in America.”—Kirkus

“Alternates between the perspective of a Black author on a book tour across the United States and a young Black boy living in the rural South, until their perspectives merge in surprising ways.”The New York Times Book Review's “Also Out Now”

“Hell of a Book is a love story, even if it’s about a love that led to grief. Our narrator’s heartbreak is what causes him to see the world through a broken lens, to the point that plot-oriented readers may find themselves frustrated. But the beauty of the novel is in the cracks that distort the plot. His conversations with The Kid lead to very real reckonings with his life, his skin color, his book. And at the end, when the narrator tries to come to terms with it all—both what’s real and what's imagined—he realizes that being Black in America and existing is a journey of love.”—Washington Post

“A surrealistic tale about a famous author on a book tour becomes an exploration of police violence and the havoc it wreaks.”Entertainment Weekly

“In a genre-bending work of metafiction, Jason Mott weaves together a first-person narrative about a famous author out on a book tour with an alternate story line about a (maybe) imaginary boy caught in the societal fallout of police brutality. The result blends satire and quietly devastating prose that reflects a loudly devastating reality. With Hell of a Book, Mott resists the urge to drown in rage and instead showers the reader with necessary truths."Entertainment Weekly

“In increasingly intertwining narratives, a Black novelist with a penchant for noir dialogue and a shaky grip on reality tours his debut novel; a boy, bullied for his dark skin, comes of age.”—Vanity Fair

“An intensely moving and thoughtful novel, and it’s also a love story, though perhaps not in the way that you (or the narrator) might be expecting. Within the pages of this innovative example of postmodern storytelling, Mott also reveals the lasting scars of America’s legacy of racism and celebrates those who find ways, against all odds, to overcome them.”BookReporter

“A timely and robust exploration of myriad forms of love and the precariousness of being Black in America. Mott masterfully threads two seemingly disparate narrativesone fantastical, the other all too familiar—into a labyrinthine surrealist tale that is by turns farcical and heartrending, tragic and redemptive.”The Charleston Post and Courier

“All three of Mott's novels to date...have revolved around elements or fantasy, the supernatural or the paranormal. Yet reality has a way of creeping in. In Hell of a Book, Mott demonstrates that fantasy, or magical realism, is sometimes the best way to confront it.... Mott treats us to a long, wild ride. In the process, he subtly delivers an old-fashioned philosophical novel, treating Black self-loathing, the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the question of whether minority writers should only write about 'Black' issues. In the process, Mott lives up to his advertising—and earns a place on the shelf beside such African-American writers as Colson Whitehead and Octavia Butler.”Star News

“A powerfully envisioned and artfully crafted exploration of identity and love (in their many forms), and of the unrelenting perils of being Black in America. Mott masterfully weaves together two seemingly disparate narratives—one a fantastical book tour for an unnamed author, the other an all too familiar story of police violence in a Black community—into a labyrinthian surrealist tale that is by turns farcical and heartbreaking, tragic and redemptive.”Southern Review of Books

“For all its moments of levity, Mott has written a deadly serious story. By taking readers inside the psychic toll of racial trauma, Hell of a Book offers a disturbing portrait of a nation that’s been lying to itself all its years. In this way, the novel feels like a plea—intense, moving, urgent, and vital.”Washington Independent Review of Books

“It should be one of your favorite books…Poignant and beautiful.”—Zibby Owens, Good Day LA

“When you’re reading this, you can’t help but feel like you’re in on an inside joke that keeps on getting funnier. Jason Mott truly has written one hell of a book.”—Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie

“Recently named the 2021 National Book Award winner, Jason Mott’s hilarious, anguished and aptly titled novel tells the story of a weary, bleary-eyed author who comes unstuck in reality while out on a book tour. Well, he’s always been that way, but it’s getting worse. Exhibit A: The part where he seems to have forgotten that he’s Black. Exhibit B: The parts where he converses with a mystery child no one else can see. With America’s weekly tragedy cycle as a backdrop, Hell of a Book is sometimes a devastating satire and sometimes just devastating.”The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A book that is both hilarious and horrifying, meditative and breathless, absurd, and, ultimately, true.”—The Bitter Southerner

“Brilliant and inventive. What is most surprising, however, is how funny the novel is. Jason Mott, an already successful American novelist, has dared to bring anarchic farce, vertiginous layers of irony and often riotous hilarity to the Black Lives Matter movement. Striking...intelligent...ingenious.”The Sunday Times (UK)
© Michael Becker Photography
Jason Mott has published four novels. His first novel, The Returned, was a New York Times bestseller and was turned into a TV series that ran for two seasons. He has a BFA in Fiction and an MFA in Poetry, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His poetry and fiction have appeared in various literary journals, and his most recent novel, Hell of a Book, was named the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2021. View titles by Jason Mott

Inside the Book: Jason Mott (HELL OF A BOOK)<br/>

About

***2021 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER***

***THE NATIONAL BESTSELLER***

Winner of the 2021 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize Finalist, 2022 Chautauqua Prize Finalist, Willie Morris Award for Southern Writing Shortlist, 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize Shortlist, 2022 Maya Angelou Book Award Shortlist, 2022 Carnegie Medal Longlist

A Read With Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick!

An Ebony Magazine Publishing Book Club Pick! 

One of Washington Post's 50 Notable Works of Fiction | One of Philadelphia Inquirer's Best Books of 2021 | One of Shelf Awareness's Top Ten Fiction Titles of the Year | One of TIME Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books | One of NPR.org's "Books We Love" | EW’s "Guide to the Biggest and Buzziest Books of 2021" | One of the New York Public Library's Best Books for Adults | San Diego Union Tribune—My Favorite Things from 2021 | Writer's Bone's Best Books of 2021 | Atlanta Journal Constitution—Top 10 Southern Books of the Year | One of the Guardian's (UK) Best Ten 21st Century Comic Novels | One of Entertainment Weekly's 15 Books You Need to Read This June | On Entertainment Weekly's "Must List" | One of the New York Post's Best Summer Reading books | One of GMA's 27 Books for June | One of USA Today's 5 Books Not to Miss | One of Fortune's 21 Most Anticipated Books Coming Out in the Second Half of 2021 | One of The Root's PageTurners: It’s Getting Hot in Here | One of Real Simple's Best New Books to Read in 2021


An astounding work of fiction from New York Times bestselling author Jason Mott, always deeply honest, at times electrically funny, that goes to the heart of racism, police violence, and the hidden costs exacted upon Black Americans and America as a whole

In Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, a Black author sets out on a cross-country publicity tour to promote his bestselling novel. That storyline drives Hell of a Book and is the scaffolding of something much larger and more urgent: Mott’s novel also tells the story of Soot, a young Black boy living in a rural town in the recent past, and The Kid, a possibly imaginary child who appears to the author on his tour.

As these characters’ stories build and converge, they astonish. For while this heartbreaking and magical book entertains and is at once about family, love of parents and children, art and money, it’s also about the nation’s reckoning with a tragic police shooting playing over and over again on the news. And with what it can mean to be Black in America.

Who has been killed? Who is The Kid? Will the author finish his book tour, and what kind of world will he leave behind?  Unforgettably told, with characters who burn into your mind and an electrifying plot ideal for book club discussion, Hell of a Book is the novel Mott has been writing in his head for the last ten years. And in its final twists, it truly becomes its title.

Excerpt

I.

In the corner of the small living room of the small country house at the end of the dirt road beneath the blue Carolina sky, the dark-skinned five-year-old boy sat with his knees pulled to his chest and his small, dark arms wrapped around his legs and it took all that he had to contain the laughter inside the thrumming cage of his chest.

His mother, seated on the couch with her dark hands folded into her lap and her brow furrowed like Mr. Johnson's fields at the end of winter, pursed her lips and fidgeted with the fabric of the tattered gray dress she wore. It was a dress she'd bought before the boy even came into this world. It aged with him. Year upon year, the blue floral pattern faded, one shade of color at a time. The threads around the hem lost their grip on things. They broke apart and reached their dangling necks in every direction that might take them away. And now, after seven years of hard work, the dress looked as though it would not be able to hold its fraying fabric together much longer.

"Did you find him?" the boy's mother asked as her husband came into the room.

"No," the boy's father said. He was a tall man with large eyes and a long, gangly frame that had earned him the nickname "Skinniest Nigga Breathing" back when he was a boy. The name had stuck over the years, lashed across his back from childhood to manhood, and, having never found a cure for his almost mythological thinness, the man had taken to wearing long-sleeved clothes everywhere he went because the empty air held within the sleeves made him look larger than he was. At least, that was what he believed.

He was a man who had been afraid of the eyes of others for all of his life. How could he not want his child to learn the impossible trick of invisibility?

"It's okay," he said. "We'll find him soon. I know it. I'm sure that, wherever he is, he's fine. He can take care of himself. He's always going to be fine." He took a seat beside his wife on the tired brown couch and wrapped the spindly reeds of his fingers around the fidgeting doves that were her hands. He lifted them to his lips and kissed them. "He's a good kid," the father said. "He wouldn't just up and leave us. We'll find him."

"He's the best boy in the whole world," the mother said.

"Maybe he just went off into the woods to find some briarberries. I bet that's where he went."

"You think so?"

The father thought for a moment. "Not sure, but I'm hopeful, Dollface."

The boy's mother chuckled at "Dollface" and dabbed the corner of her eye. Was she crying?

The groundswell of laughter that had been tickling the boy's throat for so long finally-as he sat, invisible and unseen only an arm's length away-faded at the sight of his mother's tears. His arms tightened around his legs.

He shouldn't have done this. He shouldn't have made them worry like this. They were good parents and they hated worrying about him. A lead ball of regret formed in the boy's stomach. It rang and drummed through his entire body. He needed to stop this trick he was playing on them . . . but how?

What could he do? He was less than two feet from where his parents sat, but guilt over his mother's tears pushed down on the hands that would reach out and touch her and let her know he was there. It weighted down the tongue that would sing her name and free her from fear.

There was no way, his five-year-old mind figured, that he could let them know that it had all been a joke. He could never explain to them that this was all meant to be fun. Not just fun, a celebration! After all, he had done it! For three years now, his mother and father had been trying to teach him to become invisible, to become "The Unseen." That was the name the boy's father gave to it. He said the words with a fantastic tone. He spoke with his hands in the air, sweeping back and forth gently like he was playing some magical instrument. "You will become The Unseen," the boy's father said. He added an almost spooky "Ooooooo" to the end of it sometimes. "You'll be unseen and safe for as long as you live," his father said. ". . . Can you even imagine it?"

It was the words "unseen and safe" that made his father smile. It was the boy's favorite smile, like he was watching his father gain everything he had wanted out of his life.

Unseen and safe.

Sanctified words.

"What should we do?" his mother asked her husband.

"Should we just call it quits?" replied the boy's father. He put a spindly hand on his forehead and looked very dramatic all of a sudden, the way people in movies sometimes did. And, yet, the boy thought he saw the beginnings of a smile hiding in the shadows of his father's face. "I mean," the boy's father continued, "if he's gone, maybe we should make like a banana and split. We could pack it all up and head out west somewhere. I hear they got tons of kids out there who need a fine set of parents like us."

The boy's mother smiled as though her husband had told a joke. Humor was one of his gifts. His jokes painted the walls of his family's home in brushstrokes of laughter.

But, in spite of the fact that he knew his father was trying to be funny, the boy heard his words and imagined his parents leaving him and, once again, the sea of fear swelled up inside of him.

"No, no, no," said his mother.

And just like that, the fear ebbed.

"You're right," his father said. "We could never leave him. He's just too great. No other kid in this world like him. So what should we do?"

"I have an idea," the boy's mother declared. Excitement filled her voice and spilled over into the boy. His mother always had the best ideas.

"We'll cook everything he likes to eat. All of it. One big meal like they used to do back in the old days. And the smell of it will go out all over the world and find him. That'll bring him home!"

The boy almost cheered. A great dinner of all his favorite things. All of it spread out on the kitchen table, one dish after the other. The idea that the smell of the foods he loved could go out into the world and bring him home . . . it was like something from one of the books he read at bedtime: all myth, and dream, and splendor.

The boy's father leaned back for a moment and looked at the mother through squinted eyes. "His favorite foods?" he said, stroking his dark, narrow chin. "You reckon that'll work?"

"I know it will," his mother said. "He'll smell them. The chicken. The macaroni and cheese. Maybe even a sweet potato pie or two. He never could turn down sweet potato pie."

"Pie you say?" The boy's father licked his lips. "You could be onto something with this scheme of yours. It's got legs, I think. Just like you." He kissed his wife's neck and she laughed the light, lilting laugh that she sometimes did late at night when the two of them were alone in their bedroom with the door locked.

"Stop that," she giggled.

"I don't know," the father said, his mouth a wry grin. "I still think we might could go out west and find a new kid. I hear they make some out there that actually like to eat their vegetables."

The mother laughed and the boy almost laughed too. "No," she chuckled. "We'll cook and he'll come back to us. Just you watch."

She stood then and brushed off her old dress as she always did and she went into the kitchen. For a moment, the father stayed in the living room and stroked his chin again. "Well, kid," he mused, "wherever you are in this world I hope that you know that I would never move out west and try to find another son. You're the only ankle-biter I could ever want."

Then he stood and went into the kitchen and began helping his wife.

Before long, the house billowed with the smells and sounds of the boy's favorite food. The chicken fried in a heavy black skillet and the macaroni bubbled and baked in the oven. There were sugared strawberries, and muscadine grapes, and leftover pound cake that the boy had forgotten was still in the house. Even though he was still hidden, his stomach growled so loudly that he feared it would give him away. But his mother and father didn't seem to hear and so he was able to continue to sit-even with the hunger in the pit of his stomach-and close his eyes and smell all of the dancing aromas.

In that moment, invisible and buried in his parents' love, he was happier than he had ever been. And soon, in spite of his hunger, he was asleep.

He awoke to the feeling of his father lifting him in his arms.

"There you are," his father said.

He carried his son into the dining room, where the table was covered with all of the boy's favorite foods.

"There he is!" the boy's mother screamed at the sight of her son. Then she hugged him so tightly that he could hardly breathe. That was always his favorite type of hug. It was like melting into the summertime earth.

And when the hug was over, his mother kissed him and asked, "Where were you?"

"I did it," the boy exclaimed. "I really did it!"

"Did what?" his father asked.

"I was invisible!"

His parents' eyes went wide as star magnolias.

"No!" his father exclaimed with joy, looking very dramatic like TV people again.

"You really did it?" his mother asked, equally elated.

"Yep," the boy chirped, almost laughing. "I was in the living room this whole time. Unseen just like you said. It really worked, Mama!" 

Then his mother hugged him and the three of them danced and laughed and smiled like they never had before. In that moment, the worries that had always hung over their heads were suddenly gone. It was as though all three of them might suddenly levitate off of the floor, float up into the blue sky that sprawled itself out long and wide above the small country house that the family called home.

The next day, the boy, still drunk on sweets and wonder, asked his father: "You really couldn't see me, could you?"

"It doesn't matter if I saw you or not," his father said. "All that matters is that you felt safe."


II.

The thing to remember is this: above all else, this is a love story. Don't ever forget that.

But now that that's out of the way, let's get acquainted:

It's 3 a.m.

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 that I'm naked? Because I am.

Also: I'm being chased.

About fifteen feet behind me-also sprinting, but not naked-is a very large man wielding a very large wooden coat hanger. Sometimes he holds it like a baton. Other times he holds it above his head like a battle-axe. He's surprisingly fast for a man his size.

The very large man with the very large coat hanger is draped in Old Navy couture: beige straight-fit stain-resistant khakis, argyle sweater vest, brown twill boat shoes that may or may not be faux leather. He's a family man for sure. 2.3 kids. Dog named Max. Cat named Princess. Aquarium that's on its twelfth goldfish named "Lucky." He drives a Camry and lives on a cul-de-sac in a home surrounded by a picket fence. There's an in-ground pool in the backyard. He's got a healthy 401(k).

He's everything a responsible adult should be.

He looks to be about the same age as I am-leaving the decadent comfort of thirty and reluctantly knocking on the grizzled front door of forty. And for an instant, as the two of us sprint down this luxurious hotel hallway-feet thumping on the carpet, lungs burning, arms pumping like oil wells-I think about stopping and asking him how he built that life. How he made it all come together so perfectly. How he managed to do everything I've been unable to. I want to hear his secret.

But as I take a look back over my shoulder, I see him raise that coat hanger of his into a battle-axe position and shout, "My wife! That's my wife! We made babies together!"

No. This won't be the day I find out the secret of people like him. All I can do now is try to stay ahead of that coat hanger. So I put my head down and try to remember what my high school track coach told me: "High knees. High head. High speed."

Awards

  • WINNER | 2021
    National Book Award
  • WINNER | 2021
    Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction
  • LONGLIST | 2022
    Carnegie Medal
  • LONGLIST | 2021
    Aspen Words Literary Prize
  • FINALIST | 2021
    Joyce Carol Oates Prize
  • FINALIST | 2021
    National Book Award
  • LONGLIST | 2021
    Joyce Carol Oates Prize

Praise

Praise for Hell of a Book

“It is a story of love and family. It is powerful…poignant and beautiful and what makes me so excited is I cannot wait to be part of these conversations…It’s a story of race, family, love, and justice. It’s original and Jason Mott is a talent.”—Jenna Bush Hager, “Read with Jenna”

Hell of a Book more than lives up to its title. Playful, searching, raw, and necessary, this writing, this voice, this novel twisted me up and turned me inside out, dazzled me, surprised me and moved me.”—Charles Yu, author of the National Book Award winner Interior Chinatown

“What a powerful, timely, and provocative novel. Jason's ability to take on deeply important themes with both poignancy and humor makes for an extraordinary emotional rollercoaster of a read, and I tore through this profoundly moving novel in a day but have been thinking about it ever since. Thank you, Jason Mott, for sharing this story with the world.”—Abi Daré, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl with the Louding Voice

Hell of a Book teetertotters real life and fiction in a dizzying yet dazzling exploration of exploration itself. Jason Mott brings much of what he's known for and a lot of what we do not expect to this inventive offering.”—Kiese Laymon, author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

“At turns hilarious and moving, thoughtful and madcap, Hell of a Book manages simultaneously to address momentous issues and ask pressing questions, while somehow remaining light on its feet, which is a hell of an accomplishment.”Jonathan Evison, bestselling author of West of Here and Small World

“Mott’s unflinching meditation on racism, violence, and navigating life as a Black man in America is a surreal and searing triumph.”—Shelf Awareness for Readers (starred review)

“Hell of a Book is a masterwork of balance, as Mott navigates the two narratives and their delicate tonal distinctions. A surrealist feast of imagination that’s brimming with very real horrors, frustrations, and sorrows, it can break your heart and make you laugh out loud at the same time, often on the same page. This is an achievement of American fiction that rises to meet this particular moment with charm, wisdom, and truth.”—BookPage (starred review)

“Stunning…Mott’s poetic, cinematic novel tackles what it means to live in a country where Black people perpetually ‘live lives under the hanging sword of fear.’”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A singular writer who refused to be boxed in and proves it again with yes, a hell of a book.”—CBS Saturday Morning

“Maddening, disorienting, and illuminating.”Booklist

“A story that is at once a paean to familial love and friendship and a reckoning with racism and police violence. By turns playful and surprising and intimate, a moving meditation on being Black in America.”—Kirkus

“Alternates between the perspective of a Black author on a book tour across the United States and a young Black boy living in the rural South, until their perspectives merge in surprising ways.”The New York Times Book Review's “Also Out Now”

“Hell of a Book is a love story, even if it’s about a love that led to grief. Our narrator’s heartbreak is what causes him to see the world through a broken lens, to the point that plot-oriented readers may find themselves frustrated. But the beauty of the novel is in the cracks that distort the plot. His conversations with The Kid lead to very real reckonings with his life, his skin color, his book. And at the end, when the narrator tries to come to terms with it all—both what’s real and what's imagined—he realizes that being Black in America and existing is a journey of love.”—Washington Post

“A surrealistic tale about a famous author on a book tour becomes an exploration of police violence and the havoc it wreaks.”Entertainment Weekly

“In a genre-bending work of metafiction, Jason Mott weaves together a first-person narrative about a famous author out on a book tour with an alternate story line about a (maybe) imaginary boy caught in the societal fallout of police brutality. The result blends satire and quietly devastating prose that reflects a loudly devastating reality. With Hell of a Book, Mott resists the urge to drown in rage and instead showers the reader with necessary truths."Entertainment Weekly

“In increasingly intertwining narratives, a Black novelist with a penchant for noir dialogue and a shaky grip on reality tours his debut novel; a boy, bullied for his dark skin, comes of age.”—Vanity Fair

“An intensely moving and thoughtful novel, and it’s also a love story, though perhaps not in the way that you (or the narrator) might be expecting. Within the pages of this innovative example of postmodern storytelling, Mott also reveals the lasting scars of America’s legacy of racism and celebrates those who find ways, against all odds, to overcome them.”BookReporter

“A timely and robust exploration of myriad forms of love and the precariousness of being Black in America. Mott masterfully threads two seemingly disparate narrativesone fantastical, the other all too familiar—into a labyrinthine surrealist tale that is by turns farcical and heartrending, tragic and redemptive.”The Charleston Post and Courier

“All three of Mott's novels to date...have revolved around elements or fantasy, the supernatural or the paranormal. Yet reality has a way of creeping in. In Hell of a Book, Mott demonstrates that fantasy, or magical realism, is sometimes the best way to confront it.... Mott treats us to a long, wild ride. In the process, he subtly delivers an old-fashioned philosophical novel, treating Black self-loathing, the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the question of whether minority writers should only write about 'Black' issues. In the process, Mott lives up to his advertising—and earns a place on the shelf beside such African-American writers as Colson Whitehead and Octavia Butler.”Star News

“A powerfully envisioned and artfully crafted exploration of identity and love (in their many forms), and of the unrelenting perils of being Black in America. Mott masterfully weaves together two seemingly disparate narratives—one a fantastical book tour for an unnamed author, the other an all too familiar story of police violence in a Black community—into a labyrinthian surrealist tale that is by turns farcical and heartbreaking, tragic and redemptive.”Southern Review of Books

“For all its moments of levity, Mott has written a deadly serious story. By taking readers inside the psychic toll of racial trauma, Hell of a Book offers a disturbing portrait of a nation that’s been lying to itself all its years. In this way, the novel feels like a plea—intense, moving, urgent, and vital.”Washington Independent Review of Books

“It should be one of your favorite books…Poignant and beautiful.”—Zibby Owens, Good Day LA

“When you’re reading this, you can’t help but feel like you’re in on an inside joke that keeps on getting funnier. Jason Mott truly has written one hell of a book.”—Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie

“Recently named the 2021 National Book Award winner, Jason Mott’s hilarious, anguished and aptly titled novel tells the story of a weary, bleary-eyed author who comes unstuck in reality while out on a book tour. Well, he’s always been that way, but it’s getting worse. Exhibit A: The part where he seems to have forgotten that he’s Black. Exhibit B: The parts where he converses with a mystery child no one else can see. With America’s weekly tragedy cycle as a backdrop, Hell of a Book is sometimes a devastating satire and sometimes just devastating.”The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A book that is both hilarious and horrifying, meditative and breathless, absurd, and, ultimately, true.”—The Bitter Southerner

“Brilliant and inventive. What is most surprising, however, is how funny the novel is. Jason Mott, an already successful American novelist, has dared to bring anarchic farce, vertiginous layers of irony and often riotous hilarity to the Black Lives Matter movement. Striking...intelligent...ingenious.”The Sunday Times (UK)

Author

© Michael Becker Photography
Jason Mott has published four novels. His first novel, The Returned, was a New York Times bestseller and was turned into a TV series that ran for two seasons. He has a BFA in Fiction and an MFA in Poetry, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His poetry and fiction have appeared in various literary journals, and his most recent novel, Hell of a Book, was named the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2021. View titles by Jason Mott

Media

Inside the Book: Jason Mott (HELL OF A BOOK)<br/>