Have you played H.O.R.S.E.? All you need is a basketball and a hoop, and at least one opponent. Let them take a shot from anywhere they like, any style, eyes closed, whatever. Now it’s your turn: if they missed, you can take up your own position or style, but if they made a basket, you have to copy their shot exactly. Each person who fails a shot challenge takes a letter: first ‘H’, then ‘O’. Okay, so I’ve never played it in my life – in fact, I had to look it up online to find out what it was, but even I can tell this is the sort of relaxed thing you play when there’s not enough of you around for a proper game, a game of showing off and playing up, a childlike game, low stakes and at the same time a game where individuals are repeatedly put in a spotlight, watching one another and laughing, applauding or swearing as appropriate.
Charlie Bell, the boy at the heart of Kwame Alexander’s Rebound, used to play H.O.R.S.E. with his Dad. Sometimes they played two-on-two against another boy and his Dad; in the summer holidays, they’d take a road trip to another state capital, collecting cheesy tourist attractions and looking forward to rites of passage like sharing their first beer. But two months ago, Joshua Bell had a heart attack and the ambulance didn’t arrive in time.
Now, with the summer of 1988 coming on, and in spite of every inducement thrown at him by his best friend Skinny, Charlie has lost all interest in basketball. He’s lost interest in much of life: he rereads adventures of The Fantastic Four that he knows backwards. He’s morose, angry, lost in cold, dark space. He talks back to his Mom, leaves the dinner she cooked him in the oven, skips school to play arcade games. He fantasises about being a cross between a superhero and a superstar baller, depicted in comic-style illustrations from Dawud Anyabwile (and I wish we had more of them).
If Charlie’s Dad, as he describes him, is a star whose death has created a black hole, it’s that steady suck of gravity we can feel in the first half of the book. Sooner or later trouble, in the form of Skinny’s brother Ivan, is going to prove impossible to resist.
Alexander’s novel is another on the 2019 Carnegie Award shortlist told entirely in verse. But his use of the form feels entirely different to Elizabeth Acevedo and Jason Reynolds: his use of metaphor and imagery is utterly restrained compared to the form, and there is little of Reynolds’ use of ambiguity. Instead, Alexander’s poetry works to place the reader immediately into the action, like a camera picking out specific details to speed the action along. Conversations resound in the head, no background detail necessary. When Charlie can’t answer his mother, which grows increasingly often – or when, now and then, it’s she who cannot find the words – Alexander need only show us the absence, the awkward silence, the ‘…’
Be grateful for what you have, Charlie. Some kids don’t
even have shoes to wear.
How were your tests?
Can I have some money for lunch?
When Charlie complains about not having the sneakers he needs to play on the basketball court like he used to, his mother tell him We have everything we need. Not everything, says Charlie. And then it’s just
In a world composed almost entirely of voices, these ‘,,,’s are bigger than pauses, they are moments when the world freezes and empties of life. But as the title suggests, this is a novel of optimism and change. It begins with Charlie being sent to spend the summer with his father’s parents in Washington, a household of tough love, hard work and home truths, but also of some surprising emotional connection with Charlie’s Grandaddy. But where the book – and Charlie – come alive, is back on the basketball court, with Charlie’s ultra-dedicated cousin Roxie. You can feel the book’s heartbeat quicken:
‘cause she’s like
and the ball is
and they all look
at each other
like she just pulled
out of it
when she fakes
and lays up
an easy point.
It’s all action, no room for ‘…’s. All it takes us a ball passed to him out of the blue, the spotlight on him, taking a shot he didn’t want to, and then, to coin a phrase, running with it.
This is not the novel I expected it to be: far from a dark Young Adult tale, it’s a middlegrade adventure with an off-kilter sense of humour and an ever more empowering, upbeat attitude. I enjoyed the basketball material more than I’d have expected to, even if the storyline becomes a little too predictable, the life lessons a little too homespun.
But then, this is an unashamedly aspirational tale. It’s a tale of heroes – Josh Bell was as ‘knucklehead’ kid according to his father, but grew up to be a ‘a star / in our neighbourhood’, running adult learning classes and night school for troubled kids – who don’t necessarily ride have a ‘time sled’ with which to correct the past. Because
being this close
makes me hate
I want to be
in my story.