Just as I was wending my way through various fantasy worlds, Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi slammed me back into a near future that is just a little bit removed from the ugly realities of today. Onyebuchi’s novella Riot Baby may have been a great outcry of pain, told in powerful prose, but Goliath is a deep examination of suppression of people of color by even well-intentioned white folks. It is wonderfully effective and moving when portraying the details of everyday survival in a radioactive post-apocalyptic USA, maybe less so in extended passages of lightly fictional journalism that tell the reader exactly who’s on top and who’s being ground down in this broken world and why.
Despite a few reservations, Goliath is an absolutely brilliant work that brings to unforgettable life the African American and Puerto Rican characters trying to get by in the poisoned neighborhoods of New Haven, Connecticut. You struggle through days with the Black workers Linc and Bugs as they collapse old houses to strip out bricks to sell to the colonies of White people living in space stations they can see through the stained air. You can feel Timeica’s horror, just as she has a thrilling vision of how life could be for the family she wants, when she sees Wyatt, her lover, spitting up blood and knows his end is near. The details of the struggle to survive in a largely deserted city by homesteading in abandoned houses are as vivid as could be. The simple pleasures of shared experience and the looming presence of disease and death are just as real.
Yet the story begins by focusing on two young men, returnees from the White exodus to space: Jonathan and his lover, David, who want to fix up a place for themselves. Armed with gas masks and warned about “gangs” (read people of color), they seem to be the leading edge of a gentrification movement that threatens the perilous way of life the poor are scavenging out of the ruins of the city. But they are not stick figures. Their lives, especially David’s, are filled out so that you them as well-rounded people, though part of an unjust system, even as they try to break away from it.
The story starkly contrasts the worlds and mindsets of Jonathan and David, who imagine that life is more significant on earth where it is more of a struggle, and Linc, a Black worker trying to build a home in a land so poisoned that the fortunate people either live under a dome or use a gas mask. Linc and his friends are not fortunate and have to work in the open air. David leaves behind his ailing mother, one of the pioneers in establishing the space colony, who sees in his desire to return to earth the same adventurous spirit she had. Linc earns a sketchy living by salvaging from old houses and stacking the bricks that will be sent to the space colony. While he participates in a system that often pushes Black families out of their homes, Linc is trying to preserve a family life of his own. Though Jonathan and David see themselves as fleeing the privileged world of space colonies, inevitably they participate in a post-apocalyptic form of gentrification, as part of a new generation of Whites taking over the houses of Black people.
Simplifying the story this way makes it sound too polemical, but for the most part it’s not like that at all. Life comes through in all its quirky details. While the characters have already lived through horrors of destruction and face uncertain futures, they are focused on daily living. Onyebuchi’s prose richly describes them all. There are some lapses – the reports of a young woman journalist trying to dispel prejudice in the space colony by vividly describing daily life of Black communities in New Haven felt like an unnecessary setup to show the futility of White do-good efforts.
By shifting time in the narrative, Onyebuchi shows you the ultimate fate of characters, like the preacher Bishop, a moral center of this broken world, and then shifts back to show how they came to be who they are. All the characters left behind by the White exodus to space and forced to breathe radioactive air are fatally poisoned, and there is a terrible sadness hovering over all relationships. While this is very much a story about loss and grief, yet there is all the warmth and humor of strong people playing games or sharing a meal or braiding each other’s hair or telling stories as they make the best of hard living, focusing on the here and now.
There is a chance encounter between David and Jonathan and a group of motorcycle riding Black kids who joke around but wind up scaring them. And that brings down the law in the form of cyberized cops who shoot first and last. They kill Bugs, who is Linc’s younger brother, and so Jonathan and David play out the divisions that privilege them, even as they are trying to escape their background.
But, as I have to keep saying, even when Goliath goes deeply into a narrative of oppression, the novel pulls back from the simplistic. The characters are too rich for that, their dialogue too pitch perfect, their striving for survival and family too real. Onyebuchi is a dazzling writer, and it’s hard not to be swept away with the power of his prose. The paragraphs are often long and take their time to swing from one moment to land their emotional punch, but here’s an example. Linc and Bugs are joking with Sydney, Linc’s seriously ill girlfriend, about going into space and how impossible a dream that is.
“Linc saw her and wondered what this would have been like without this new girl next to him on these rocks. He and Bugs probably would’ve just smoked and joked about being left behind and would have tried not to sound too mournful about their almost-futures, their never-futures. They probably would’ve performed that pain-masking they saw on the site, men hurting and lying, hurting and joking about it, hurting and hiding it by hitting someone. And it would’ve spurred Linc to thinking about Ace being put out on the street like he was and about god making you capable of wanting something you could never have and about precious things falling apart for no reason because that’s what they did. But Sydney was next to him and Bugs was still laughing, and it all felt precious.”
Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi, Tordotcom, Kindle Advance Review Copy, Location 638
This is not a novel of twisty plot and high adventure. It’s future realism that projects from our present into an all too plausible tomorrow of a wrecked world where people still have to survive and make do with what they have. Onyebuchi moves from one point of view to another, from the White returnees to the Black workers, weaving in stories of their pasts, always deepening the sense of each character. I found reading Goliath more and more enriching as I dwelt on the details of the winding narrative, going over different sections several times.
It’s a book to be read slowly to let its riches reveal themselves. It’s literary science fiction at its best, like The Book of Strange New Things or Central Station, that draws you back again and again.
My thanks to ToDotCom and NetGalley for an advance review copy on which I could base this review, reflecting solely my own opinions.