Hold Love Strong, Matthew Aaron Goodman, Touchstone
I’ve heard it said that writers tend toward tragic stories rather than triumphant stories because the latter are harder to pull off convincingly. Goodman does not appear to suffer from that problem. Hold Love Strong is a wonderfully executed triumphant story.
The book starts like getting shot out of a cannon, wasting no time. The narrator, Abraham, is born in his grandma’s bathroom. Shortly before, his mother and her friend “watched TV as if late night reruns of the Three Stooges could refute [his] mother’s pregnancy and pains and transport them to who they should have been at this time in their lives, nascent teenage girls just beyond the loss of their last baby teeth, confidantes whose essential aims had yet to be developed and so needed to be discussed in that mighty gabbing and giggling best thirteen-year-old girlfriends do when awake after midnight.” On the bathroom floor, Abraham’s umbilical cord is wrapped around his neck. His “mother’s pushing combined with [his] twisting and turning was killing” him. Abraham survives because his grandma “unwound the umbilical cord from [his] neck,” “cleared [his] nostrils and mouth with her pinky,” and “wiped the blood from [him] with the palm of her hand.”
The ordeal in Abraham’s birthing foreshadows the early life he leads, growing up in Ever Park, “a building of stacks, of bricks stacked upon bricks, people stacked upon people, the smell of adobo stacked upon the scent of frying chopped meat stacked upon a hungry baby screaming for food.” This is a world of futility and disappointment.
His young uncle Roosevelt is “gifted on a basketball court.”;
He had sneaker boxes filled with medals and letters from college coaches begging him to consider playing for them…. He was going to make millions. It was his destiny. And that destiny, he swore, would take [Abraham’s family] out of Ever. And [they] believed him.
Unfortunately, this promised dream cannot exist for long in Ever. Roosevelt is arrested and sent to prison because “he got money to pay [the family’s] bills” by putting “crack in his gym bag and [carrying] it from point A to B.
Instead of getting out of Ever, the family falls “into greater poverty, greater pain and suffering.” Despite the desperation in which Abraham and his family live, Goodman’s story is still not tragic. Amidst the hopelessness, the bonds between the members of Abraham’s family shine out.
When Abraham’s uncle Donnel is arrested for getting into a fight Abraham is “determined to find” money Donnel hid “to free him,” but “Donnel wouldn’t tell [him] where the money was.” Donnel saved that money running drugs to buy a house and move the family to Atlanta. Donnel faces serious time in jail, but what he wants “is bigger than being locked up.” Abraham creates “rationales and arguments meant to confuse [Donnel] and bend his heart into telling [Abraham] where the money was,” but “Donnel told [him] it was useless” and asks if he thinks “just because a nigga is behind bars he don’t have principles.” This is the same uncle who “burst into the bathroom and held the knife out” so Abraham’s grandma could “cut [Abraham’s] umbilical cord” and then “stood on his tiptoes and looked at the new life [Abraham’s] grandma cradled to her chest.”
The family’s dedication to each other in the face of their desperate lives makes it all the more touching when the triumphs do come. Ultimately, this story chronicles the love between the members of the family as they fight to survive and make life better for each other. Goodman strikes a good balance, occasionally becoming a bit nostalgic but never overly sentimental.