Ideally, a boy’s biggest concerns on his first day of fourth grade would be whether his lunchbox is cool enough and which teachers will assign the most homework. Things were more complex for David Matthews, who in 1977 moved from suburban DC to Baltimore, a rigidly segregated city in which
David, half black and half white, found no natural crowd. Twenty minutes after being dropped off at school, he was besieged by a pack of classmates who demanded that he explain himself. Nonplussed, he said nothing, “inflaming them with a torturous game of racial keep-away.”
Thirty years later, Matthews has dispensed with such reticence. In his kinetic and searching memoir Ace of Spades, he confronts the identity questions that bedeviled him in his youth, telling his story with incisive intelligence and often hilarious irreverence. This unusual combination distinguishes Matthews’s memoir from others to which it will likely be compared, most notably James McBride’s bestseller The Color of Water, which shares its subject matter but not its spirit. McBride, like Matthews, was born to a black father and a white Jewish mother but reared solely by the parent whom he phenotypically resembled least. Both writers describe the contradictions of growing up in a rough-and-tumble city as nerdy types who had a few feckless flirtations with crime but preferred books. Both memoirs are, in part, paeans to the authors’ respective single parents. For all their similarities, however, I can’t seem to remember the part in The Color of Water when McBride humps a lubricated foam mattress or stuffs his shorts with hairnets before gym class to create the illusion of pubic hair. Nor do I recall any anecdote about becoming enraged at a Jewish classmate for crying during a Holocaust video, or one in which he gets mugged and relishes calling the perpetrators “niggers” in front of his black parent. Probably because McBride didn’t go there, as most of us wouldn’t.
Matthews, who recounts all of the above, goes for broke, punctuating his narrative with a series of audacious anecdotes. He’s not merely telling it like it is; he’s testing us: Each outrageous self-revelation seems to dare us to rescind the sympathy he has won elsewhere. But Matthews recognizes that readers who aren’t alienated by his candor will respect him all the more for it.
Or maybe he just likes telling stories. Matthews is a natural at it, with a gift for simile and an expert comic timing that paces even–or perhaps especially–the book’s most freighted moments. Consider, for example, the continuation of the are-you-black-or-white grilling he’s subjected to during his entree into the Baltimore public school system:
As the mob, with me as the cynosure, reached our first-period class, they resorted to a subtler though no less politic tack:
What kind of music…you like?
Even though I (marginally) enjoyed the Jackson Five, that admission might provide partisan ammo to the students most consumed with what I was, so in a panic I threw out names of performers my grandmother liked. That’s how fucked up racism is. What else on earth could have motivated a young boy, first hour in a new school, to throw away any chance at acceptance–forget about cool, we’re talking basic Lord of the Flies do-we-eat-this-kid-or-not survival–with this reply: Beverly Sills.