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Though Cross River is a fictional Maryland town, its inhabitants feel vividly alive in the hands of author Rion Amilcar Scott. In Scott’s debut short story collection, Insurrections, teachers, barbers, and drug dealers ply their trades in the storefronts, schools, and streets of this D.C.-adjacent stomping ground, but it is the private lives of Cross Riverians that make up the book’s beautifully beating heart.
The coming-of-age tug-of-war between children and their fathers is a common theme throughout the collection. In “Good Times,” a young father, Rashid, is saved from attempted suicide by his fatherly neighbor, Walter, but coping continues to be tough for the suicidal, broke, self-loathing man. In an ongoing attempt for redemption and his own father’s approval, Rashid drains his three-year-old son’s college fund to buy a cookie monster costume for the child’s birthday party. The costume turns out to be a shabby mess, and Rashid shambles down to Walter’s apartment in the subpar suit, ranting about his mistakes and imagining his own father’s disappointment: “He’s probably upstairs right now trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me. Trying to figure out why I’m not doing things the right way, like he told me.”
“Confirmation” is a son’s remembrance of his boyhood sacrament, a holy day on which his now-dead father unleashed on the boy an unholy beating. In “202 Checkmates,” a daughter learns chess from her seemingly invincible father; as the games stack up she glimpses his imperfect humanity, the fragility of his ego. In “Three Insurrections,” a young father goes into the wild to find himself but ends up in a hospital bed, where his father recounts a journey from Trinidad to the center of a riot after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fathers and their children aren’t the sole central figures in the book, and coming-of-age strife isn’t its only source of conflict. Cross River was founded in 1807 after the only successful slave revolt in the United States, and the oppressive forces of racism and classism keep many of its mostly black inhabitants stuck or send them fleeing. A hurricane that rivals Katrina rips through the South side in “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone,” putting a trailer park underwater and stranding the town’s poorest people on their roofs. The social commentary here lands an impactful punch.
Though most of the stories are told with straightforward narrative style, Scott plays with form and style in “Party Animal,” the tale of a young boy with promise who devolves with age and addiction. It’s written like a clinical journal entry complete with detached language, medical lingo, and copious footnotes reminiscent of David Foster Wallace.
While there is violence and hardship sown into the very soil of Cross River, there’s also redemption and hope. Rashid tells Walter that as soon as his suicide plot was underway he was flooded with regret: “Damn, the same things that make you want to kill yourself also save your life. I swear all I was thinking about when I was hanging was that boy and that woman.” It’s this kind of double-sided coin that Scott seems to see everywhere in his carefully considered construction of a fictional town that sprung against all odds from a fight against suffering and bondage.
Rion Amilcar Scott reads from Insurrections on Sunday June 11 at 2 p.m. at the The Writer’s Center. 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Free.