New York City gentrification and structural racism undergird the 10 stories in Jamel Brinkley’s exceptional second collection, Witness, in which a range of characters—from children to adult siblings to ghosts—observe, take responsibility for and occasionally speak out against the moral ambiguity they see around them.
A group of high school friends in “Blessed Deliverance” takes interest in a new pet store in Brooklyn, but they are upset when they see how management treats an employee from their own Bed-Stuy neighborhood. “Comfort” tells the story of a woman spending her days and nights drinking and drugging after her brother’s murder by a police officer. Compassion from a male visitor she calls “Bamboo” helps to numb the pain of her loss, even as he takes advantage of her addiction. In “Bartow Station,” the narrator’s job with UPS leads to a relationship with a florist on his route, but the courtship unravels when he confides to her about his cousin’s tragic death, leaving him lonelier than he was at the start.
The two strongest stories in the collection explore the impact of systemic trauma on memory and family. In “The Happiest House on Union Street,” Beverly recalls a past October so warm that the Halloween pumpkins rotted before the holiday; in her memory, the decaying gourds are connected to a domestic disagreement that she witnessed between her father and uncle, and the resulting loss of the family’s beloved Brooklyn brownstone. In the title story, Silas has moved in with his sister, Bernice, in Crown Heights while he looks for work. Bernice forms a romantic attachment to an indigent DJ she meets on the street, but at the same time she begins to experience debilitating headaches. When Bernice’s illness worsens, their mother comes to stay, and her rage against the inadequate care that Bernice receives is infectious, growing daily with devastating results.
Witness covers much of the same ground as Brinkley’s award-winning debut, A Lucky Man, a collection of stories in which Black men and boys are tested by incarceration, generational trauma and sexual violence. However, this new collection displays how Brinkley’s already superb craftsmanship and subtle plotting have grown. Though his stories don’t range beyond New York City, they journey deep into the human heart with precise language and a generous spirit.