Three-Fifths by John Vercher

John Vercher’s Three-Fifths is a harrowing and captivating character study on the various ways race and identity interplay when one can code-switch in The United States, a country where politics and violence dictates one’s very survival. The book tells the story of Bobby, a man whose life is driven by his ability to pass and identify as both a black and a white man, and the circumstances brought about by poverty and living in the constant cycle of barely making it by in the unpredictable income of working in the restaurant industry. When one of his best friends is released from prison and commits a striking act of violence in front of Bobby on his first night out – one that Bobby may even be unexpectedly complicit in – the lives of everyone around them become inextricably linked

Vercher has written an astute novel that captures the complicated characteristics of America’s relationship with race, poverty, the criminal justice system, masculinity, education, and violence. Bobby’s experience, captured in breezy compartmentalized sections that truly reflect a strong command of his prose, is a story that should feel familiar to any American man of the twentieth century. What is less recognizable until reading the book, of course, is the ways in which our attitudes toward these elements of our culture can ripple through a community and continue to perpetuate the centuries-old rotting foundation on which we stand. We don’t recognize these moments, and the role that memory, race, and violence can remain a festering wound that affects our relationships, community, and nation on a regular basis. Vercher’s characters wear their identities like masks, and showcasing how changes can happen within a man and his community that rear the ugliness of the human condition all too quickly when a rent payment is due, a drug habit nibbles away at your mind, or the coping mechanisms and identities that were effective in prison end up identifying the price of a black man’s life on the indifferent pavement outside a greasy spoon.

Vercher’s fast prose and intricate attention to the inner lives and histories of his characters make Three-Fifths an astonishing book that captures a great deal of the bizarre, violent nature of the era we live in. It is a novel that perfectly captures the various social movements of our time almost all at once – and Vercher’s pen makes the story and its statements feel effortless. This was an excellent book.

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