state of the nation
Finalist: 2019 Lambda Literary Award
The towering walls of First Pennsylvania Bank cast a long column of shade along the alley that abutted with the Norristown Post Office. The old man felt a bit of relief there in the shadows, out of the harsh glare of the midsummer day. His nose twitched at the acrid smell of garbage covering his feet. He reached for a Styrofoam container lodged beneath a heavy trashbag, opening it to find a rancid piece of meat and a partially eaten Kaiser roll. He glared with consideration at the roll, tossed aside the rest of the container and pocketed the bread in the deep pocket of his overcoat.
It was a very paltry offering, but it was too early in the day. He knew that he’d have had better luck had he waited until after noon, when the attorneys, civilians and business workers in the downtown area finished with lunch, but he had not had any success finding a meal the previous night, so he had hoped his lucky dumpster might offer something. This was better than nothing.
He grunted at the currents of pain that shot through his knees as he clambered back onto the sidewalk. He grabbed the makeshift knapsack; an old raincoat tied with belts that held his possessions, and headed up to Airy Street. He accidentally looked at his reflection as he passed a parked car and silently recoiled. He’d never get used to this. Seeing a body so out of accordance with the way that he thought of himself. A face that had once been sharp and angular now bulbous and undulating with growths. A body riddled with ailments, that used to work twelve hours cultivating Macon County soil and then another six drinking and looking for a firm young body to spend the night with.
The slowing down of his body had been a gradual one. So slow that he had not even been aware of it happening. Back home, in Georgia, the doctors had called it bad blood. Some days when he would be so fatigued that he could barely get out of bed. Other days he would be just fine.
Seemed like that bad blood was something in the water, or something in the soil: so many of the men back home had come down with it. So many that doctors came down from Washington DC to take a look at things.
The old man turned left on Airy Street and turned into the upper courtyard of the municipal building. He was tired. It would be so good to be able to lay down and feel the warm air from the grate on his tired bones. But he knew better. People like him did better not to make a nuisance of themselves during business hours, lest they risk drawing attention of the police. That never led to a good outcome. The man had a missing tooth as evidence of what being visible at the wrong time could lead to.
Bad blood. That, too, had led to a bad outcome. Oh at first things had been great. The doctors came in from Washington with their bright white coats and shining instruments. The first colored nurse he had ever laid eyes on smiled with those pearly white teeth, her uniform sitting on her curves like foam on a wave, “this won’t even hurt,” she’d say, and prick you with a hypo while you looked at the swell of her bosom spilling generously against your arm.
The promises had been great. Doctors looking at your health regularly. Free meals on consult days. And the best thing; burial insurance. To be able to put away in style, without your family being stuck trying to scrape up the pennies to do it, that was something every sharecropper in the state could envy. But as the years had passed it seemed like the medical attention wasn’t doing much good. Instead of getting better, it seemed that things were getting worse. Once small sores and lesions disappeared, only to come back later as a rash across the whole back, or pustules on the hands and feet. Men that once single-handedly harvested their own crop could barely guide a mule down a trench, forgot their children’s names, wandered off from home.
Soon, the men from DC were not partners, they were bosses; telling you what you could and could not do, just like the white men that owned the patch of land that you cultivated. They told you you could not join the army because you needed to be available for examinations. You could not move, in fact could not leave the state to visit family without first getting approval from the nurse on site, so that your whereabouts were traceable, ‘for the public good’.
The old man blamed only himself. What good had ever come from trusting a smiling white face, especially if they were giving something away?
He meandered down the steps into the lower level park, standing at the crest that cast a view of the business people making mad dashes toward the buses and trains humming at rest in their hubs.
The man began to mumble to himself, shaking his head to clear the ghosts away. But it was not ghost. It was as if the past had stepped into the present. Oh, it wasn’t exactly the same, the figure wasn’t as fine, the breasts weren’t saluting at attention as they had been back then, but the hips still swayed the same, and the smile still illuminated the dawn.
The commuters walking down the park stairs toward the trains made a wide berth around the babbling homeless man as they went about their day.
The power of Ambrose’s novel is in the brilliant way he weaves the past with our contemporary moment with each reflecting and more precisely defining the other. Readers are given a moral novel far surpassing the hollow, myopic literature usually encountered yet there’s never a moment when State of the Nation feels preachy, glib, or forced.
"As a first novel, Ambrose has given readers a quiet, resonant gem..."
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"Ambrose crafts something that feels vitally important, especially at this time..."
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STATE OF THE NATION follows the day to day experiences of three boys of color as they navigate through a society that does not see them, at best, or at worst, sees them as degenerate bodies deserving extermination.
The Atlanta Child Murders of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, serves as the undefined monster that acts as micro, macro and psychic aggressor, functioning in a way that inhibits and prescribes behavior. The murders loom in the background of the story, serving as an albatross that hovers over the lives of three friends coming of age during a moment in American history that in many ways mirrors the present, as police violence perpetuated against Black youth continues to generate press.
STATE OF THE NATION highlights the fact that missing black bodies were not an anomaly, it was the media attention of those particular bodies that was the anomaly, as black bodies were being defaced, defiled, and extinguished all over the country during that time. The Atlanta Murders were a continuation of neo lynching, a replication of an age-old American tradition reminding black youth that they are expendable.
STATE OF THE NATION links elements of the Tuskegee Experiment of the 1940’s to the ever-present vulnerability of the black body, making use of the era in which the story is told, the cusp of the 1980’s, to hint at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, which began on the tail end of the Atlanta Child Murders.
STATE OF THE NATION shows the influence of pop culture prior to the advent of social media. Pop culture serves not as a world that shuts these characters out because they are different, but sort of glamourizes difference, so in a way, it is something that is attainable to them because it gives them an example of what they can try to emulate in order to obscure the things that make them different. The imagery of classic movies and fashion magazines act as tertiary parents, soothing when they are upset, telling them stories when they are bored, entertaining them when they are lonely, teaching them how to speak properly, demonstrating how to give the witty one-liner.