Tyler Johnson Was Here adds another voice to #BLM and it’s a worthy voice indeed. Inspired by events in his own life, debut novelist Jay Coles tells the story of seventeen-year-old twins Marvin and Tyler who live with their mom in Sterling Point, Alabama. Their father has been incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.
The novel’s opening scene is a doozy. Heading back from the corner store to their house with their best friends Ivy and G-Mo, the brothers find themselves in the middle of an incident. An incident involving guns. And a cop. And already I am 100% out of my element. Of course, I am present enough in the world and read enough YA to know that this clash and the bullets and the violence are not an anomaly.
At first the friends think they’ve found themselves in the middle of some sort of gang dust-up, but when the cop shows up they realize it’s much, much worse. The cop has a kid with him, and as Marvin and the others watch
The cop keeps bashing the poor kid into the sidewalk, smashing his face onto the surface, screaming hate into the back of his head, screaming that he forgot his place in the world, screaming that his wide nose had it coming. All I can see – all I can focus on – is the cop as he pulls out his baton.
It is hard not to be affected by this scene, or any of the other things that happen as Marvin tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life, especially after it seems that Tyler is making some decisions that are clearly not of the good, including a friendship with Johntae, a known drug dealer.
The odds seem stacked against Marvin and Tyler simply because of the colour of their skin. There are very few white folks in this world, but I have to say I didn’t trust any of them – even Mrs. Tanner Marvin’s English teacher. I think she was sincere, but did she just have a white saviour complex? And here’s something I never thought about. Marvin describes his Advanced English class as “whack as shit”.
We don’t learn anything worth knowing, and today’s been just the same old dead white people, and white poems that she forces us to write on white pages. And now she tells me that Shakespeare was the world’s first rapper.
Ouch. As an English teacher myself, that stings a little, but the kid’s got a point. The Western canon leaves a lot to be desired – even I know that – and I love a lot of it.
Tyler Johnson Was Here is a readable, propulsive and frustrating novel. It is a much-needed reminder that everyone does not have the privileges that I have taken for granted my whole life. If the characterization is not quite as robust as I might have liked, it’s a small complaint because ultimately I was invested in Marvin’s story and spending a couple hours with him is time well spent.