Book Review: Three-Fifths by John Vercher


John Vercher

September 10, 2019

John Vercher’s debut, Three-Fifths, is about a biracial black man, passing for white, who is forced to confront the lies of his past while facing the truth of his present when his best friend, just released from prison, involves him in a hate crime.

John Vercher had a lot on his back with the release of Three-Fifths. It’s his debut novel and establishing himself as a crime fiction voice to watch should have been enough pressure. In his case, however, there was more to worry about: Three-Fifths is also the first book from Agora, Polis Books’ new crime fiction imprint dedicated to diverse voices. Luckily for Vercher and Agora, the novel features an incredibly timely narrative that packs a violent, heartbreaking punch. Vercher is now on the map, and Agora just exploded onto the scene with a book that will grab readers by the throat and force them to look at things many other books purposefully stay away from.

Bobby Saraceno is a young man living in Pittsburgh in 1995. He is the son of a black father he never met and a white mother with a drinking problem. Despite that mix, Bobby has lived his life like a white man and has been able to hide his mixed identity from almost everyone, including his best friend Aaron, who is a racist and eventually joins a gang of white supremacists. When Aaron appears again in his life after spending three years in prison, he is a different person, and Bobby has a hard time dealing with the changes. On the first night of Aaron’s freedom, the two friends end up involved in a hate crime outside a restaurant that leaves a young black man fighting for his life on the ground with a shattered face. Bobby fears for his safety after the event. He might go to prison for his involvement in the assault. Or Aaron might do something to make sure he stays quiet about it. While he deals with the stress of the situation, his mother sees Bobby’s father, now a doctor. She told her son his father had died, but coming face-to-face with the past makes her rethink her life choices. What follows is a gripping narrative about identity, secrets, and how we must learn to cope with the repercussions of our decisions.

Vercher does many things right in Three-Fifths. The first is that he created the perfect atmosphere for his story. Pittsburgh is not Los Angeles, but back in 1995 it was also rife with racial tension in the wake of the L.A. Riots and while the O.J. Simpson trial played out on every television set out there. It was a divided city and Bobby’s status as a biracial man in a country where the one-drop rule has always meant a plethora of negative things places him in the middle of all of it.

The second thing Vercher does well is writing with a combination of aplomb and economy of language that makes readers feel like they’re reading a novel by a seasoned veteran. He never shies away from tough topics and tackles violence like few other contemporary crime writers:

Robert followed the paramedics inside and they briefed him on the way to the trauma unit. The bones on the left side of the kid’s face had been crushed, and the right side was lined with fractures, likely from a secondary impact. Few teeth remained intact, and the bite from the impact had lacerated his tongue almost to the middle. Some of the shards from his orbital bone damaged the eye. He’d likely lose sight in it, if not the eye altogether. What neurological testing they had been able to complete when he wasn’t seizing suggested he had a bleed in his brain.

Lastly, there is an elegance to the writing that, when mixed with its straightforward approach to everything, makes Three-Fifths read like a perfect hybrid that’s part literary novel, part brutally honest exploration of race relations and identity, and part hardcore noir:

The bus’s brakes squealed as it pulled up. The doors opened with a hiss and Bobby flashed the salt-and-pepper-haired black driver his pass. The driver’s uniform gave a false semblance of authority and it made Bobby feel better to be near him. Not that he could do anything to help. If Aaron’s thick fingers pushed through the folding doors in some gamma radiation-fueled rage, ripped the driver from his seat and threw him into the windshield in some Neo-Nazi frenzy until it spider-webbed and broke loose, there’d be nothing the poor fool would be able to do to stop him. Thankfully the driver did the only thing he needed to do to avoid all that. He drove off and left Aaron to fade away under the parking lot lights. Tiny rivers of melted snow traveled up and down the channels of the black rubber floor as the bus lurched into gear. The inside lights flickered and dimmed. Bobby sat back and sighed.

The time for fiction coming from Otherness is here. We need narratives that break away from what we’ve always had and offer a different view of the themes that currently affect us. Three-Fifths does all of this while also being wildly entertaining and showing that brutal crime fiction can also be profound, sophisticated, and tackle important subjects without being preachy. This is the kind of novel that will put Vercher on the map while doing the same thing for Agora, who now must work hard to ensure everything they publish is on the same level as this outstanding debut.

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