Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Black Gum by J. David Osborne.
J. David Osborne’s Black Gum (Broken River Books, 2015) is about a lost and broken man; or as the narrator tells us at the end, someone trying to get his language back. Essentially, the idea of his language is that it is the true tongue he invented, the kind of speech that is most easily held with those he loves. The main character loses his language at the beginning when his wife leaves him—or as I suspect, he leaves his wife—and while it’s not always clear, the book follows this young man while he desperately searches to get it back.
The bulk of Black Gum follows the main character while he lives with his friend Charlie and is introduced to—and subsequently falls into a life of petty crime with—Shane. The narrative isn’t a continuous story running from one scene to the next, but rather each chapter works as its own flash fiction vignette. This technique pulls us into the main character’s own subconscious view of the world and adds a nice visceral layer to Black Gum.
It is supposed to feel reeling and incomplete, because that is how it feels to be in the midst of a major life crisis.
The scenes jump from him partying to sad endings to sexual encounters to dealing drugs and eventually hitting rock bottom. An interesting aspect of the book is the absence of the wife and the narrator’s refusal to even think of her. The first chapter focuses on the main character believing his wife is cheating—or wanting to cheat—and so he gets out in front of the supposed confrontation and leaves. Since we are getting all this information from his perspective, we are not sure if this is actually what is happening or if it is simply a false conclusion he is jumping to prematurely. After the opening, we follow his life of depravity, getting hints of his life outside of what is presented to us. His old friends will remark that they have not seen the narrator in awhile, but it will get chalked up to him being married. Then, later in the book the wife begins texting him and reaching out, but all the reader gets is brief moments where the narrator looks at his phone and then ignores the messages. This disconnect from his wife is what is driving this character to do everything, but it is up to the reader to intuit the full story from his current actions.
This is partly what makes Osborne’s Black Gum such an intriguing book. He is using Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory so masterfully that on a primal level the reader knows the deeper story we are given, even in the sparse presentation of it. Each chapter works on its own, laying out a full story in the flash fiction format. This can make it feel less like a full and complete novel while in the middle of reading it, but that is the point of this book. It is supposed to feel reeling and incomplete, because that is how it feels to be in the midst of a major life crisis. It is hard to see the forest for the trees, although in the end it is a spectacular forest.