ONE OF TIME’S 100 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
ONE OF NPR’S BEST BOOKS OF 2019
ONE OF BUZZFEED’S BEST BOOKS OF 2019
An electrifying, dazzlingly written reckoning and an essential addition to the national conversation about race and class, Survival Math takes its name from the calculations award-winning author Mitchell S. Jackson made to survive the Portland, Oregon of his youth.
This dynamic book explores gangs and guns, near-death experiences, sex work, masculinity, composite fathers, the concept of “hustle,” and the destructive power of addiction—all framed within the story of Jackson, his family, and his community. Lauded for its breathtaking pace, its tender portrayals, its stark candor, and its luminous style, Survival Math reveals on every page the searching intellect and originality of its author. The primary narrative, focused on understanding the antecedents of Jackson’s family’s experience, is complemented by poems composed from historical American documents as well as survivor files, which feature photographs and riveting short narratives of several of Jackson’s male relatives. The sum of Survival Math’s parts is a highly original whole, one that reflects on the exigencies—over generations—that have shaped the lives of so many disenfranchised Americans. As essential as it is beautiful, as real as it is artful, Mitchell S. Jackson’s nonfiction debut is a singular achievement, not to be missed.
Novelist Jackson (The Residue Years) gives an unvarnished look at urban life in this memoir about growing up black and poor in 1990s Portland, Ore. As the subtitle references, this is more than Jackson's story, and as he traces his great-grandparents' "exodus" from Alabama to Portland and the subsequent lives of his relatives and their struggles with addiction, prostitution, and incarceration he captures the cyclical nature of poverty and neglect. Jackson doesn't shy from describing his own life of crime, drugs, violence, and womanizing in vivid and unflinching detail, like when he gets paged to a drug deal only to find his mother waiting to buy from him. The prose is a stunning mix of second-person observations of various unnamed males in his family ("post a dubious decision to drop out of college your sophomore year you find yourself Sir-Yes-Sir'ing' at a naval base") and historical and religious references that he incorporates to tell his story. Interwoven with sections called "Survivor Files," which recount moments when the lives of those family members changed (such as when one relative found out that his daughter from a one-night stand had been adopted by the mother's new husband, and he realized he would never get to know her because he never would try), Jackson plays out his life's "revision" getting out of jail, pursuing an education against a backdrop of self- and social critique. Thanks to Jackson's fresh voice, this powerful autobiography shines an important light on the generational problems of America's oft-forgotten urban communities. This review has been updated to reflect changes to the final text of the book that were not included in PW's review copy.