Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

long-wa-downWow. I’d heard great things about this book, so I was expecting a lot, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it soared past all my expectations. It’s also a book that has continued to affect me long after finishing it. I loved it immediately, but my appreciation and reverence for it has only grown.

Long Way Down is a novel in verse, and it takes place over the course of 60 seconds in an elevator. When his brother is murdered, 15 year old Will takes it upon himself to kill the man who shot him. He takes his brother’s gun and steps into the elevator of his building, heading out to kill his brother’s murderer. In the elevator, he meets various people he’s known throughout his life, all of whom have been shot and killed.

The people Will meets in the elevator–people whom he’s loved–do not offer him easy answers, a solution, a way out. His father tells him that when he was young he went out to murder in revenge and shot the wrong person. His brother’s best friend appears in the elevator along with the man who shot him, the two of them joking and laughing together. None of it is simple.

The brilliance of this work lies in the way Reynolds forces the reader to simply sit with Will, in his head, in a moment of profound grief. The moment–those sixty seconds on that elevator–is complicated and painful. Will is scared, angry, panicked, and grieving. He doesn’t know what to do or who to turn to for comfort. There is no escaping any of it. He can’t get out of his head. Therefore, the reader can’t, either. The use of such a compressed timeline works brilliantly to heighten Will’s internal turmoil.

In hands of someone less talented, this book could have so easily been something simple, moralistic, and unsatisfying. Instead, Long Way Down is complex, visceral, and real. It’s not about absolute right and absolute wrong, or what Will should or shouldn’t do–it’s about one young man’s experience of loss, of feeling trapped and responsible, of bearing weight, of being caught in a legacy of violence he can’t figure out how to escape.

The verse was gorgeous, and the whole book was studded with lines that took my breath away, like this one: “If the blood inside you is on the inside of someone else, you never wanna see it on the outside of them.” (Forgive me: I listened to the audio so I’m not sure where the line breaks are.) I highly recommend the audio version–Jason Reynolds narrates it, and he does so perfectly–it’s powerful, measured, authentic. The emotion in his voice is obvious, and he perfectly captures the cadence of a teenage boy.

Everything about this book–the verse, the relentless pace, the breathlessness, the suspension of time—adds up to something heavy and universal. It gets into the gritty whys and hows and wheres of the decisions we make. What is wrong and what is right and who gets to judge? It’s perfectly executed, but it’s not just the big questions that make it worth reading. Will is a great character with a unique voice and a lot of depth. It’s impossible not to keep rooting and hurting for him, all the way through.

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