It’s been a long time since Okonkwo’s brilliant novel, Jazz Moon, so I was stoked when I heard Amble Press was releasing a collection of Joe Okonkwo stories. And they had a lot to live up to. Jazz Moon was notable for its rich characterizations and deft plotting, but I needn’t have worried. Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck more than lives up to that promise.
Betrayal looms large in Okonkwo’s work: betrayal of family, of friends, of love, and even of self. This betrayal slaps the reader lightly in the first story, “Picnic Street,” sucker punches you in “Skin,” and delivers a fierce right cross with “Paulie”. Of this initial triptych, the latter two stories had the most impact for me. The protagonist of “Skin” suffers from body image issues, using those issues to destroy a new love. Its final scene, though inevitable, is heartbreaking and will linger in your memory. “Paulie” sees the title character betraying his family, especially his mother, with a devastating act that both shames and empowers him, schooling the boy in the fragility of relationships and how easily they can be decimated. His realization that he is good at creating such castrophe is truly chilling.
“Gift Shop” is an interesting piece in which betrayal is the catalyst rather than the denouement. Our protagonist, Nina, finds out about her husband’s infidelities with a younger man only to have him ask to move said young man into the house and the relationship. He doesn’t want a divorce, but wants to live in perfect marital harmony with both of them. Nina considers this the last straw and says she’s moving out. But she doesn’t do so. Paralleling that storyline, Nina also finds her position at the museum gift shop where she works usurped by a younger, hipper, man. You’ll never see the resolution coming.
“The Girls’ Table” is the first story to feature Cedric, a young Black man who is one of the main protagonists in the title piece. In “Fluff,” an older man finds employment in an unexpected place. Okonkwo returns to the Harlem Renaissance of Jazz Moon in “You Can’t Do That to Gladys Bentley,” which tells a tale of intolerance featuring the controversial, cross-dressing nightclub star, and then tugs at your heart with “Cleo,” a simple tale of a man and his cat.
The final story, “Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck” sees the return of Cedric, now a grown bisexual denizen of Queens and an opera buff who has a fight with his girlfriend Melanie and goes to see Madame Butterfly, meeting a cultured, uptown Black artist named Paul. Both relationships are rocky, uneven power struggles, but, again, it takes a betrayal for Cedric to make a decision between his two paramours.
Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck is a high-powered collection of well told stories, full of the kind of engaging characters we’ve come to expect from Okonkwo. There’s not a duff one in the bunch. Highly recommended!
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler