September 5th, 2021

andrew potter

2020-2021 Rainbow Awards Honorable Mention: The Mayor of Oak Street

The Mayor of Oak Street by Vincent Traughber Meis

I did not read a back cover blurb before starting this book and had no idea that it would include a real-life incident I knew so much about that I should probably have recused myself. But the book was so enjoyable that I’d already decided on the score I was going to give it by about page 50. I kept reading, not allowing myself even to skim, because I didn’t want to miss a word. The book is good. The story starts off strong with the young Nate sneaking into the home of one of his paper route clients while she’s out. The writing is beautiful, the characters and situations vivid, and the story moves along at a steady, comfortable pace that keeps it from dragging, despite how much is going on inside the main character’s head. That’s harder for a writer to accomplish than it sounds. The slide into substance abuse was painful but told realistically. The author included well-chosen details throughout that made this feel like a memoir rather than a novel. I kept wondering how much of the story was true. It “felt” true. Many pages later, when I realized the main character was headed to New Orleans, I paid even more attention to the details. Were they going to sound researched or give a sense of lived experience? They were convincing. But the time period put me on edge. The early 1970s in New Orleans? I was afraid of what might be coming. And then when Nate meets up with Nick, who goes to the Metropolitan Community Church, I knew I was in for a rough ride. It’s possible than my familiarity with the Upstairs Lounge fire made me especially critical of the details in that portion of the book. A few of them were a bit off. And it was in these final thirty pages where the author includes uncharacteristically awkward dialogue. In the rest of the book, there had been an occasional clumsiness with a line like “tears streamed down my cheeks” (why do so many authors use that awful cliché?) but here at the end, there were several other poorly written lines. It’s this clumsiness at the end, at a particularly important point, that lowered the score for me with “Writing Style.” But really, the flaws here are quite minor. The tragedy of the Upstairs Lounge could never be made into a novel-length story because the whole thing was over in just a few minutes. I always knew that it would have to be part of another story unrelated to the fire. In this novel, while the disaster works well as a climax, the novel could have succeeded with a completely different climax. Nate’s story didn’t depend on the fire to work. Which is why using this as the climax did work. As someone who has carried the Upstairs inside me for decades, I’ve longed for the day when a good writer could integrate what happened into an already good story, and that’s exactly what happened here. I highly recommend this book.

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