In Mitchell S. Jackson's new book, nearly every word hurts.
Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family (Scribner, 336 pages, $26), the Portland-born, New York-based author's hybrid essay collection and memoir, is a challenge to get through. It has nothing to do with the text, which is dense and rich, alternately blunt and tender, with references that run the gamut from Snoop Dogg to Adam Smith. The content, though, isn't for the faint of heart.
Jackson first garnered critical acclaim in 2013 for his debut novel, The Residue Years, a largely autobiographical tale about a crack-slinging college student and his mother's struggles with addiction. It was set in Northeast Portland, in a time before there were yoga studios on every corner, when the neighborhood was instead a hub of the city's African-American community.
The essays in Survival Math cover similar ground, tracking Jackson's metamorphosis from kid to crack dealer to aspiring novelist. Along the way, he witnesses his mother in the throes of crack addiction, receives lessons in pimping from his stepfather and, in one disturbing scene, baby-sits a toddler while his buddies have group sex with the mother in a basement.
Jackson writes about these events with shocking candor. In an essay called "The Scale," Jackson describes his own transgressions against women by referring to them as "crimes" and offering several of those women nearly 20 heartbreaking pages to tell their side of the story.
And it's not just the personal details that sting. Beginning with a letter to Markus Lopeus, the first person of African descent to set foot in Oregon, arriving in 1788 aboard Capt. Robert Gray's ship, and ending with a letter to Jackson's daughter, the essays in Survival Math connect the struggle of his family to the broader community he's always relied on for support. "Composite Pops," in particular, is a heartfelt essay on all the men who have served as father figures in Jackson's life, from coaches to uncles to his stepfather.
It's often painful to read, but Jackson weaves these stories together with fluid grace. Under his pen, his mother's plasma donation becomes a treatise on race in America: "Even if donors like Mom are encouraged by a belief that they're supporting the welfare and prosperity of their country, they must contend…with the bewildering dissonance that issues from believing in a republic that in numerous ways has forsaken them." In his final essay, "Revision," Jackson recounts the fates of peers who didn't survive to his age. "I wish I could've seeded him with that faith," Jackson writes of his friend Lil Anthony, murdered outside a strip club at age 20, "that I could've convinced him that pursuing mastery of his gifts may've altered a future that he felt predestined."
In Survival Math's opening pages, Jackson describes the new condos in Northeast Portland as "monuments to privilege." But in recalling his own struggle, what Jackson has created is a monument to the marginalized—and it's every bit as harrowing and beautiful as its architect's life.
SEE IT: Mitchell S. Jackson is in conversation with Oregon Supreme Court Justice Adrienne Nelson at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., powells.com, on Monday, March 11. 7:30 pm.