nightcrawl, by Leila Mottley
Leila Mottley has added a pool of dog poop to the long list of literary metaphors for the disillusionment of young people. The vengeful ex of a crack addict collected the feces from the dumpsters of East Oakland, California, and scattered them in the pool of the Regal-Hi apartment complex, where no one ever swims or cleans. For Kiara, a resident of Regal-Hi and the teenage narrator of Mottley’s empathetic debut, “Nightcrawling,” this polluted water is a daily reminder of the devastation this town wrought in her young life, and in the only place she’ll ever see her called home.
It’s 2015 and Kiara is months behind on her rising rent, “begging for services at the liquor store and counting the number of crackers left in the cupboard.” Meanwhile, money and power are flowing across the Bay Bridge into downtown Oakland, where tech offices and Ubers and yoga studios and cafes and bartenders with all the same tattoos proliferate. The Temescal neighborhood “scoops up its pistachio ice cream like they don’t settle the country and call it entrepreneurship.” There are no jobs here for Kiara, who grew up on these streets and in the apartments of the dealers they used to fill, who uses the yellow pages to find a job because she can’t afford a smartphone or internet.
Not that she has much time to worry about the big things around her: gentrification, the approaching presidential election, the protesters shouting Freddie Gray’s name outside an Oakland district. There’s too much responsibility on Kiara’s 17-year-old shoulders: she single-handedly supports both herself and the son of her crack-addicted neighbor, Trevor, whom she’s known since birth. At the age of 9 he has become less of a brother to her than a son.
The boy is Kiara’s chosen family for want of her own flesh and blood. Her father, a former Black Panther, died of prostate cancer after he left San Quentin. “Mom blamed the prison for Dad’s death,” Kiara says, “which meant she blamed the streets.” Soon, Mom is gone too: in jail after drowning Kiara’s sister in the same Regal-Hi pool, then trying, and failing, to kill herself too.
Kiara may be saving her biggest disappointment for her older brother, Marcus, who refuses to get a job to take care of them both because he’s too busy to become a famous rapper instead. Because she is a minor and has no degree, the only work she can find is on the same streets where her father was murdered. A downward spiral of last resort sends her to the center of a human trafficking ring, where the NCOs are the Oakland Police Department.
Mottley writes candidly about Kiara’s serial abuse, without blinking: the feeling of calloused fingers on her bare skin; of a gun barrel “cold and menacing above my eye” as she enters; from the “jerk in the bowl over my belly” when the police call her over and over to take their turn with her. She prefers when someone “presses harder” because “I just don’t like him trying to restrain himself. The only thing worse than an untamed man is a man on the brink.’
The thing with some trauma plots is that even the most horrific can be, sadly, true. In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Mottley cites a 2015 lawsuit in which the Oakland Police Department was accused of sexually exploiting a teenager and trying to cover it up. Kiara’s story is pure fiction, Mottley says, but her circumstances are disturbingly, statistically real.
Mottley writes with a lyrical fervor that reminds us that she was once Oakland’s youth poet laureate. Some similes (a woman’s “cheekbones bulge like apples in her hollow skin”; a body in labor “yawns like the sack of air before the rain begins to pound”) land better than others (drown is “a kind of like your body overflowing” with itself”; the cold air from the bay “like 7-Eleven slushies in winter”). A confusingly underdeveloped romance between Kiara and her best friend, Alé, who “moves a bit like the Hulk” and casts a spell on Kiara by rolling a joint feels undeserved when it finally comes to fruition. But beneath this free embroidery lurks a despair – a reaching, through language, for some sort of rescue – a counterpoint to the main character’s carelessness in handling her body.
After Marcus ends up in jail, Kiara is handily connected with a public defender, Marsha, who wants her to testify against the police before a grand jury and make a deal to get her brother out. Marsha is a blond woman who wears cat-print shirts, avoids carbohydrates and tells Kiara to stop cussing. “Marsha was looking for ‘how to get the most out of yourself’ and found an article in Cosmo about updating,” Kiara bursts out, skeptical of her white savior. But her resentment turns into something like trust, like Marsha does for her what no other guardian ever has: she keeps showing up.
In a novel about sex work and displacement, there is somehow less pathos combined in all moments of graphic violence than in a single, rending passage of deep love. When Kiara is inevitably separated from Trevor – when she packs his few belongings into the counterfeit Warriors backpack she bought him for his birthday; when she reluctantly pulls his arms from her waist to “untie like a knot”; when she carries it to the social worker “like you put a small child to bed after they fall asleep on the bus” – we feel the final rupture of kiara’s childhood. She has survived brutal heartache, poverty and sexual assault, but “this has to be the hardest thing I’ve done,” she thinks, “being the adult for him.”
When Trevor is gone, like when Mom and Dad and Marcus left the Regal-Hi for him, life doesn’t go awry. There’s still the trial, the grand jury, the filthy pool, the men, the bay, the disappointments. “Everything is moving, fast and relentless,” Kiara notes. “Like the city doesn’t know it should stop, should kneel, mourning Trevor.”
nightcrawl, by Leila Mottley | 271 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28
Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.