An Extraordinary Memoir of a Black American Boyhood

SINK: A Memoir,by Joseph Earl Thomas

The trick of memoir resides in the illusion it conjures: Living is ongoing, but the packaged product can imply a totality. Something has been learned, or experienced or endured, and tidily enough to have been condensed between two covers. What the reader ultimately receives is the extract of a life. In deft hands, you’re privy to the purest distillation of its burdens and boons. But despite the ruse of palpable resolution, the business of discerning your identity is dynamic and never-ending. It’s a truth that can undermine the tidy forms of best intentions, but one that — thankfully, generously — remains effervescent throughout the entirety of “Sink: A Memoir,” by Joseph Earl Thomas.

Set in Philadelphia, largely in the late 1990s, “Sink” chronicles Thomas’s journey, as a Black kid growing up in the city, toward awareness — and softness, and confidence, and discernibility. We meet his family, including his grandfather and mother, individuals both harmful and harmed by the world. We meet his friends, who oscillate between serving as lifelines and threats. We see how he uses geek culture — with its interconnected worlds and minutiae, attendant concerns and standards and solaces — as both a refuge and a compass. Through cascading vignettes, the random and ingrained stresses of geography are explicated and endured. White supremacy’s many branches wrap themselves around Thomas and the denizens of his experiences — in the verbal and physical abuse, homophobia and misogynoir in his immediate vicinity, and in the economic disadvantages weathered by his larger Philly communities. But the stream running through it all is the protagonist himself: He watches. He attempts. He screws up. He tries again.

Structurally, the most immediately apparent conceit belongs to Thomas’s use of the third person: For much of the book, we follow him not as “I” but as “Joey.” It’s a recalibration that takes only a moment for the reader to attune to, but it’s one that reads as both precise and deeply thoughtful. We watch as Joey navigates the travails of daily living. We watch as Joey bounces along from mystification to indifference to self-knowledge. We watch as he comes into his own — merging the Venn diagrams of how he’s seen, how he feels and who he wants to be. How he could, perhaps, one day find himself seeing and dissecting others as an artist in his own right. But in the decision to use this perspective, Thomas pushes the reader even closer to the experience he’s attempting to convey — the movement from viewing oneself as an outsider to the acceptance of being oneself fully.

The world of “Sink” extends largely from the culture surrounding Joey. The notion that manga and anime and pop music and video games could be responsible for the molding of an artist’s lexicon is hardly groundbreaking, but Thomas’s matter-of-fact delivery is a genuine rarity. In the library of this memoir’s mind, the video game series “Final Fantasy” occupies currency equivalent to “Moby-Dick,” and awareness of each is essential to the conditioning of the protagonist’s sensibility: “Much like Sonic the Hedgehog,” Thomas writes, referring to the video game character, “Joey just knew that life would be about navigating the machinery of other people’s lust, greed, anger or hurt, spinning signs and jumping high over the spikes, but not too high, skirting just under the sharp thingies on the ceiling, and most of all, being thankful that if all else failed, at least there was a roof.”

Thomas’s insightfulness also applies to the role of language in this book: It both illuminates and obfuscates. Early on, Thomas writes: “It was important, as a child, never to speak. Especially when someone asked you a question. It was not your place to reply.” Later, after his pet bird dies, he writes a sort of recipe for resurrection, replete with “lime and other stuff,” noting each ingredient’s specific weight, aligning them with the mechanics of the manga series “Fullmetal Alchemist,” whose plot also hinges on transmutation. Later still, speaking of an errant trick-or-treating venture, Thomas writes: “He’d never seen the boys before despite how familiar their bodies felt next to his, like a reflection of the only older boys he’d ever know, those destined to become the only men he knew, whose bodies were just like his and his like theirs, all of them terrified to admit this to themselves or each other.” The prose rips and shines.

Thomas’s decision to weave his memoir with a steady tone and unwavering hand strips it of any sensationalist bent. Joey navigates drugs and violence and stigma and financial duress, and the events he describes are merely things that happened. This is simply a life being lived. The language of amplification — or even magnification — might have made the narrative more legible to white readers conditioned to viewing the lives of marginalized folks through hyperbole, but at the cost of Thomas’s journey, which is to say, at the cost of honesty.

Midway through the memoir, noting the role of great (white) authors and their pursuit of the canonical whale, Joey thinks, “Perhaps whale watching should be an option, if only to turn it down.” But this white canon exists for Joey on equal footing with the fandoms that permeated his childhood. The action games “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” and “Star Ocean: The Second Story” stand alongside the anime TV series “Dragon Ball Z,” which in turn occupies the same level of importance as Incubus records, which Joey loves as much as “Pokémon Red.” Of the latter, Thomas writes: “That you brought Dratini” — a Pokémon character — “up from birth, though, grounds you. You are grounded. You put in work. No rare candies over here, just hard-earned hours of grinding day and night because Dragonite did not wake up like this. This is what it means to start from the bottom and finally get somewhere.”

Late in the book, we find ourselves switching vantage points, from the third person of Joey’s boyhood to the second person of the author’s teenage years. The voice is left intact. Thomas’s prose remains supple, but shifting the narrative camera proves a valuable technique. It heartens the reader to see this movement toward, if not acceptance, then something akin to it. It reinforces the idea that geographic distance isn’t the sole barometer of ground covered in an individual’s journey. “You want an alternative that isn’t exceptional,” Thomas writes. “You want, at this moment, for someone to pay. But you also want to be honest and acknowledge that someone is also you, that your hatred for them is wasteful, and that they are so sad, too.”

In the ecosystem of American publishing, the lack of emphasis on the exceptional is exceptional. In championing the quotidian, with its everyday absence of exemplariness, Thomas really does accomplish the extraordinary. “Sink” is heavy. It’s a tough book to read. But it is honest. Thomas has constructed a sort of alchemy on the page, but one born of experience, from skill and from a trust about what will end up on the other side; a meticulous, careful construction. Because “Sink” is, among so many other things, also a book about care. The care we’re taught to accept. The care we learn from others. The care we seek, and the care we find, and the care we envision, molding and remodeling its contours into something that’s a comfortable fit for us. But perhaps one of the biggest boons of “Sink” is its insistence that care is, above all, shared. It is everyone’s prerogative. In this way, Thomas has earned a deep bow.

Bryan Washington is the author of the forthcoming novel “Family Meal.”

SINK: A Memoir | By Joseph Earl Thomas | 249 pp. | Grand Central Publishing | $28

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