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Description of We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin PDF
“Stunning and audacious . . . at once a pitch-black comedy, a chilling horror story and an endlessly perceptive novel about the possible future of race in America.”—NPR
LONGLISTED FOR THE CENTER FOR FICTION FIRST NOVEL PRIZE, THE PEN/OPEN BOOK AWARD, AND THE PEN/FAULKNER AWARD • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND THE WASHINGTON POST
“You can be beautiful, even more beautiful than before.” This is the seductive promise of Dr. Nzinga’s clinic, where anyone can get their lips thinned, their skin bleached, and their nose narrowed. A complete demelanization will liberate you from the confines of being born in a black body—if you can afford it.
In this near-future Southern city plagued by fenced-in ghettos and police violence, more and more residents are turning to this experimental medical procedure. Like any father, our narrator just wants the best for his son, Nigel, a biracial boy whose black birthmark is getting bigger by the day. The darker Nigel becomes, the more frightened his father feels. But how far will he go to protect his son? And will he destroy his family in the process?
This electrifying, hallucinatory novel is at once a keen satire of surviving racism in America and a profoundly moving family story. At its center is a father who just wants his son to thrive in a broken world. Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s work evokes the clear vision of Ralph Ellison, the dizzying menace of Franz Kafka, and the crackling prose of Vladimir Nabokov. We Cast a Shadow fearlessly shines a light on the violence we inherit, and on the desperate things we do for the ones we love.
“We Cast a Shadow asks some of the most important questions fiction can ask, and it does so with energetic and acrobatic prose, hilarious wordplay and great heart. . . . Love is at the core of this funny, beautiful novel . . . . At any moment, Ruffin can summon the kind of magic that makes you want to slow down, reread and experience the pleasure of him crystallizing an image again. . . . Read this book.”—Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
“Set in the post-post-racial South, We Cast a Shadow tells the story of a man—one of the few black men at his law firm—desperate to pay for his biracial son to undergo demelanization, desperate to ‘fix’ what he sees as his son’s fatal flaw. It is this desperation that haunts this novel and, in this desperation, we see just how pernicious racism is, how irrevocably it can alter how a man sees the world, himself, and those he loves. It is a chilling, unforgettable cautionary tale, and one we should all read and heed.”—Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist
“We Cast a Shadow is like a dispatch from the frontlines of the African-American psyche. Written with ruthless intelligence, it’s the story of a father’s love and how he tries to protect his son in a country that devours black lives through violence, incarceration, and poverty. . . . [Ruffin] can drive his story to the outer limits and beyond, and never lose the threads of bitter reality that make it so haunting. We Cast a Shadow soars on Ruffin’s unerring vision.”—Renée Graham, The Boston Globe
“Stunning and audacious . . . at once a pitch-black comedy, a chilling horror story and an endlessly perceptive novel about the possible future of race in America. . . . Ruffin proves to be a master . . . a fast-paced and intricately plotted book . . . The real draw of the novel is Ruffin’s gift at creating unforgettable characters. . . . He writes with a straight face, never in love with his own cleverness—there are echoes of Ralph Ellison’s intelligent, unshowy prose. . . . There’s no doubt that We Cast a Shadow, with its sobering look at race in America, can be difficult to read, but it’s more than worth it. . . . It’s a razor-sharp debut from an urgent new voice of fiction.”—NPR
“Heart-wrenching and morally ambiguous . . . a challenging, thought-provoking debut.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Ruffin’s name is the talk of the literary world.”—The Times-Picayune
“Inventive and shocking . . . One of the most anticipated debut novels of 2019.”—Los Angeles Times
“A biting satire of anti-blackness in the US.”—BuzzFeed
“A full-throated novelistic debut of ferocious power and grace . . . a story that refracts the insanity of the world into a shape so unique you wonder how this book wasn’t there all along.”—Lit Hub
“Propulsive . . . We Cast a Shadow proves that the eeriest works of speculative fiction are those that hit closest to home.”—Vulture
About the Author
Maurice Carlos Ruffin has been a recipient of an Iowa Review Award in fiction and a winner of the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for Novel-in-Progress. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, TheKenyon Review, TheMassachusetts Review, and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. A native of New Orleans, Ruffin is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
One of my books clubs chose this newly released debut, We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin for our March monthly read. The premise was intriguing – a black father who is essentially trying to save his son from himself. In the not too distant future, as the book describes it, somewhere in the United States, race relations has taken a terrible turn from bad to worse. The unnamed narrator decides, for his son – Nigel, to reach his fullest potential he must undergo a extreme surgical procedure coined demelanization to rid himself of the dark, pigmented birthmark on his otherwise fair, biracial skin.
The entire book is about the father doing whatever he sees fit to secure the financial means for the procedure for his son. He’s in a race against himself that only he seems to be running. Against his wife’s, mother’s, and even his son’s wishes, the narrator stops at nothing to help “protect” his son. The author does a good job building suspense and creating tension. His writing style pushes the reader forward to discover what happens next. Intertwined in this emotion are some very real scenes that reflect current racial issues, like over-policed neighborhoods of color and mass incarceration. Because the novel is set in the future, it is a bit of downer for those of us who’d like to remain optimistic that these kinds of issues will get better, not worse, with time.
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I feel as though the author is smart and his idea was worthy of print. However, I could not get into it. I did finish the book, but it wasn’t satisfying for me. These dark comedies usually aren’t. I don’t know if it was just so unbelievable that someone could hate the essence of their being that much or if it was the misplaced satire that turned me off. I couldn’t identify with the narrator. I found him to be unsympathetic, and I think, in the end, he got everything he deserved.
I would definitely consider reading another book by Ruffin because I do think he’s a talented writer. I just think this wasn’t the book for me.
Recommendation: Fans of dystopian novels may enjoy this book. I think it’s always a good idea to give new writers support. Plus, you have the added benefit of seeing them hone their craft as they publish future works.
Until next time … Read on!
Regardless of whether I purchase a book, borrow a book, or am gifted one, my ultimate goal is to be honest, fair, and constructive. I hope you’ve found this review helpful.
Review of We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin PDF
The initial question that one grapples with here; Can one show love or teach love if said one doesn’t love himself? The unnamed Black narrator is an attorney at a prestigious law firm, and so has accomplished himself against all odds in a near future society that is hell bent on the destruction of Black people. But, his dilemma is trying to secure a future for his son that is absent the aggressions that he has faced in his lifetime.
His son, Nigel is the product of a white mother and Black father and has a birthmark that his father is afraid will turn ever darker and take over his entire body, enveloping him into everlasting Blackness. To avoid this fate, he dreams, works and prepares for the day when he can afford to demelaninize his son and remove all traces of Blackness and the ability to produce Blackness in any offspring. The horrors of a world ruled by white supremacy is front and center here. That may make it tough reading for some, but the reality of where we are now, and where we might be-concerning race relations-is not only plausible and possible but indeed probable!
The bigger challenge for me was not the external, but the internal. Where is the self-love? The esteem built on knowledge of earlier struggles? It is severely lacking in this character, as evidenced by the book’s first sentences.
“My name doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that I’m a phantom, a figment, a man who was mistaken for waitstaff twice that night—odd, given my outfit.” We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin PDF
So bleaching creams, big hats and admonishments about the sun are stand-ins for love and caring. The unnamed narrator is keenly aware of his self-caused situation and Ruffin at times has him (the narrator) directly address the reader.
“Now I’m perfectly aware of the judgmental thoughts running through your head as you read these words. I suspect your pupils have dilated, your lips are agape, your heart filled with venom toward me.”
This coming after he smeared the stinking and stinging bleaching cream on his son, Nigel. And doing this he nervily asks, “You know I love you right? One day this will all be in the rear view.”
Even as he chalks up his own station in life to luck, he is not willing to take that chance with Nigel.
“It’s because I’m lucky, and I know it. Somehow the grinding effects of a world built to hurt me have not yet eliminated my every opportunity for a happy life, as is the case for so many of My brethren. The world is a centrifuge that patiently waits to separate my Nigel from his basic human dignity. I don’t have to tell you that this is an unjust planet.” p. 134. And he justifies his behavior thusly,
“A dark-skinned child can expect a life of diminished light. This is truth anywhere in the world and throughout most of history.”
Ruffin gives us a few examples here, the basketball player being ejected more often, the applicants name on a job application, apartment evictions, arrests for vagrancy, etc. in the middle of these all too familiar examples for Black folk in the “Home of the Free” he again allow the narrator to speak directly to the reader,
“Admittedly, none of these examples are particularly shocking, and I fear that I risk insulting your intelligence, dear reader, but ride with me awhile longer.”
Every ‘successful’ conscious Black man in America has had some variation of this thought at one time or another. James Baldwin once remarked, ‘to be a Negro and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.‘
This is the grand question of the novel, “What if I can ensure that my boy is not perceived as a Black man? What if he is simply a man? The sadness is contained in the contemplation of such perception. You will laugh, curse, cry, and be twisted in the end.
A thoughtful and thought provoking debut written with a confident, carefree prose sprinkled with bits of humor. There are some things so devastating, disgusting and distasteful that humor is the only way to deliver such truths. And for an author to come out the gate this way is nothing short of amazing. I think big things are in store for Mr. Ruffin and I plan to be there as witness! Read this one. Surely, it will be seen on best of 2019 lists!
Excerpt We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin PDF
My name doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that I’m a phantom, a figment, a man who was mistaken for waitstaff twice that night—odd, given my outfit. I managed to avoid additional embarrassments by wallflowering in the shadow of the grand staircase. Their cheeks pink from Southern Comfort, the partners—or shareholders, as the firm called them—stood chatting in clusters around the dining room.
I had been invited by my law firm’s leaders to attend their annual party at Octavia Whitmore’s mansion on the Avenue of Streetcars. It was a highlight of my life, an honor for a lowly associate just to be invited, although I was surprised to be told to show up in a costume.
Rough fabric chafed against my collarbone. I was dressed as a Roman centurion. I had rented the mega-deluxe option, no expense spared: full tunic of lamb’s wool, leather sandals, and five—count ’em, five—Hollywood-prop-grade weapons: a sword, a javelin, a bow and arrow, a shield, and a dagger. I never knew that Roman soldiers used daggers. But the costume guy assured me that they did too use daggers, the dagger being the preferred weapon of choice for when shit got real, which apparently it did from time to time.
The first floor of Octavia’s mansion was a series of large rooms. Playful notes of sandalwood and jasmine lingered in the foyer. I spotted my fellow black associate Franklin beyond that entryway. Franklin, who got white-girl drunk at every firm function, karaoked “I Feel Pretty” into a microphone. Franklin had come wearing the perfect icebreaker. He wore a white smock and a black bow tie, the uniform of every black busboy and waiter at every old-line restaurant in the City. Café de Réfugiés, Carnation Room, Pierre’s—no, not Pierre’s; there were no brothers at Pierre’s. I wasn’t sure what must have been more mortifying for Franklin: that he was singing so poorly or that no one paid him any mind. It couldn’t have helped that he was too black to be pretty.
My frenemy, good ol’ back-slapping Riley, was bent over a table giving the managing shareholder, Jack Armbruster, a foot massage. Sweat made Riley’s bald head glow. He looked like a scoop of chocolate ice cream melting under the parlor lights. Riley was dressed as a parish prison inmate, which rankled my sense of propriety. They saw enough of us dressed that way in news reports. However, I had to admit it was an impressive getup. He wore a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit, and even a fake chest tattoo. He carried clinking leg shackles slung over his shoulder, as if ready to reincarcerate himself on request.
Riley was working the old fart’s feet, feet so gnarly they seemed like roots ripped from the field behind the mansion. He dabbed his dome with a handkerchief. Was a promotion and bonus worth the kind of humiliation Franklin and Riley were undergoing? Confetti rained down on the junior shareholders in the adjacent parlor. You betcha.
My son Nigel’s procedure would be expensive. After feeding the snarling, three-headed beast of mortgage, utilities, and private school tuition, I only managed to pocket a few copper coins each month. But if I were promoted, I would earn a fat bonus, and Nigel would finally get a normal face, over his mother’s objections.
I idled on the sidelines, nursing a rum and Coke, which, in turn, nursed my ever-present migraine (thankfully, almost down for the night). I had lost count of how many drinks I’d had over the last few hours, which meant by now my blood was probably 75 percent alcohol by volume. And that was on top of the dissipating effects of the Plum I took that morning. I told myself on each awakening that I didn’t need Plums anymore. I told myself I could quit anytime I chose. But I knew better. Those petite purple pills, which turned my nervous system into a tangle of pleasurably twinkling Christmas lights, had become a constant companion. We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin PDF
Riley ambled over. He exaggeratedly wiped his palms on his jumpsuit pants. Smiling, he jabbed his hand out for a handshake. I shook my head.
“Where is the love?” Riley glanced at his hand and sniffed. “I don’t blame you actually. I think Armbruster’s been on his feet all day.” He grabbed the sleeve of my tunic, tossed his head back, and chuckled. “You don’t think you’re going to win in this, do you?”
“I like my look,” I said, taken aback. “Check out this hand-stitching—wait. Win what?”
“Win this hazing ceremony. Tonight is a competition, after all. There’s three of us, but only one promotion. You knew that.” Riley raised his eyebrow. “You didn’t know that.”
“But this is just a party.”
“And one of us will have something to celebrate.” Riley always seemed to have inside knowledge about the firm’s workings. But he was also the kind of person to say things just to get a reaction from me. Still, he wouldn’t joke about this. The stakes were too high.
“What happens to the losers?”
He leaned in to whisper. “You know how it works. It’s up or out.” Riley adjusted my breastplate. “I didn’t mean to mess with your confidence. You’re right. This is a great look.” He straightened up and nodded. “Really authentic.”
Riley patted my shoulder and trotted off, his manacles clattering against the back of his jumpsuit. He shook the hands of a couple of shareholders and laughed.
I suddenly realized I had made a serious miscalculation. Riley’s costume was a great way to get attention and spread good cheer. Mine, on the other hand, was the sartorial equivalent of a glower. Centurions were badasses who killed anyone who crossed them. The only way I could have made this group any more nervous was if I showed up as Nat Turner, but I knew better. Or I should have. There were many unknowns in my pursuit of happiness, but one thing I understood: law firms like Seasons, Ustis & Malveaux didn’t hire, let alone promote, angry black men. If this was a competition, I needed a new strategy. The shareholders wanted entertainment. They wanted a good time. They also wanted subservience. They did not want to feel threatened. If I was going to win, I would have to demonstrate I was willing to give them exactly what they wanted.
I quickly moved from room to room searching for anything that could help me. In the back den, I spotted Octavia Whitmore in a gingham dress, carrying a terrier in the crook of her elbow and a drink in each of her hands. If anyone could help me find an advantage, she could. After all, she was a senior shareholder, and I her legal footman. I was the associate who did the grunt work that was beneath her valets. She needed me.
“You look just like Judy Garland,” I said. Octavia hadn’t noticed me, so her face momentarily lit up in surprise as I approached. I kissed her cheek.
“Well, aren’t you sweet?” she said.
I liked Octavia. She was one of the good ones, even if, as she once drunkenly admitted to me in a stalled elevator, she sometimes fantasized about wearing blackface and going on a crime spree. After shattering storefront windows and mugging tourists by the Cathedral, she would wash the makeup from her face, content in the knowledge that the authorities would pin her deeds on some thug who actually had it coming.
That was when I realized that the Toto in her arm was a cat— a Ragamuffin cat wearing a wig. I’d never seen a cat wearing a wig. It was a night of wonders.
“Why you off to the side like this, sugar?” Octavia licked her thumb and polished the foot of a gilt bronze cherub.
“Someone has to stand watch over these rabble-rousers.” I puffed my chest out and stamped my javelin on the marble floor.
“But who’s guarding you? Here, this will freshen you right up.” She took the javelin and handed me another glass. I gave my empty rum glass to one of the waiters, an onyx-skinned man who would have otherwise eluded my attention if not for the fact that he’d clearly undergone enthusiastic rhinoplasty, his broad-winged brother’s nose replaced by a narrow, upturned pointer. Such procedures had become much more common among black folk lately. I couldn’t tell if he’d only had his schnoz done because he was too poor to afford the full procedure or because he was afraid. Half measures were such a waste of effort. If you were going to skydive into whiteness, aim for the town square, not the outskirts.
“What’s this?” I said.
“A Sazerac,” Octavia said with a wink. Her hair’s silver streak glinted.
“But you know I don’t drink,” I said, drinking.
“I don’t think I’m a fan favorite in this.” I gestured to my clothing.
Toto growled at me. That cat took its role seriously.
Handling my javelin as if it were a pool cue, Octavia leveled it at the crowd, but I couldn’t tell who she was shooting at. She leaned it against the stairwell banister. I reached for it, but she stopped me.
“Leave it,” she said. “I have something for you upstairs.”
We climbed the stairs until we reached a side gallery that looked down on the atrium. Powder-blue shapes shimmered from the aquarium and formed waves across the checkerboard floor. Riley passed behind the bars of the staircase, dragging his chain. I was glad to be away from the scrum of shareholders with their plastic smiles, the smiles of sharks before a feeding frenzy. You really shouldn’t be able to see a person’s molars when they grin. The whole situation made me jumpy, as if a squid were twitching around in my tunic. I should have worn underwear.
Octavia led me into a long room. Every wall was covered with leather-bound books. Eyes Without a Face. The Hip Hop Ontologist’s View of Leda and the Swan. Blackstone’s Law. I pulled that book from the shelf and opened the cover. Dust motes pirouetted into the air. I sneezed.
“You read all these?” I asked, wiping my nose with the back of my Sazerac hand.
“Shit, no.” She ran a French-tipped nail along the rim of my glass. “Neither did my father. They’re real, but mainly for effect.”
She pointed past me, and I followed her line of sight.
Statues lined the back wall. Just like me to notice books but not creepy wax men lurking in the shadows. One mannequin was Chinese, I guessed. He wore a fulvous robe and had long tufts of hair along his chin. Another looked like a Jack Kirby Thor, square jaw, blond hair, and Mjolnir, the magic hammer. I caught the theme even though there were no placards. Gods of the Human World. We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin PDF
“What do you think of this one?” she said.
It was a black man. He wore a headdress, face paint, and a bone necklace. I had no idea which African deity he was supposed to be, but I’d read enough to know there were more black deities than anyone could possibly keep track of, so many, in fact, that it cheapened the idea of godliness. If everyone was a god, no one was a god.
Whoever made the statue apparently believed the myth that all us black men were hung like Clydesdales, a myth that led to plenty of awkward dating experiences since I was only average in the Joe department. The African god’s loincloth did little to obscure his bulge. It was a safety hazard. Someone could poke their eye out.
As for my overall opinion of the statue, whenever a white person asked me any question just because I was the onliest black guy in the room, the possible responses rattled around my brain like dice in cup: one, answer with anger; two, answer with humor; or three, answer with a question.
The first, I practically never used. Anger, of course, could get you killed.
The second, humor, was fine in most situations, but it was only something I deployed in safe environments. This was not a safe environment. Octavia was up to something. Something dangerous, or brilliant, or both.
“Is this a museum?” I asked.
“My father’s private collection.” She trailed her index finger down my bare arm. She walked behind the African god. From its perch on Octavia’s arm, Toto sniffed the statue’s butt. “These were sculpted by the same man who did the original Madame Tussauds. The hair is real human hair. Even the eyelashes. Even the eyeballs, I think.” She squatted by a low drawer and rummaged through it. She pulled out a gong. “There are accessories all around the room. You can upgrade your look to something more . . . appropriate.”
She struck the gong with her glass, producing a hollow sound.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked.