Mitchell S. Jackson

The Residue Years

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The Residue Years Summary

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The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson is an autobiographical novel set in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s. The novel follows Champ and his mother, Grace, who struggle to survive and keep their family together with opposing relationships to crack-cocaine. Grace has just left rehab and hopes to avoid the drug at all costs, while eldest son, Champ, deals crack to make enough money to support his mother and two younger brothers so they can all stay off the streets. The novel is based on Jackson’s own life growing up as one of few black boys in predominantly white Portland, Oregon. He writes about the effect crack had on his mostly neglected neighborhood, and its impact on racial tensions, family, and identity.

The Residue Years alternates between the perspectives of the eldest son, Champ, and his mother, Grace, who has just left another of what appears to be an endless progression of court-ordered stints in rehab. When the book opens, Grace has just gotten out of her rehab program after receiving a felony conviction for possession of drugs. She has three sons – Champ, the eldest, is bright and wants to continue going to college but struggles to fight the appeal of the streets. Grace’s two younger sons, KJ and Canaan, split time between their mother, when she is not in jail, and their father Big Ken.

Before her first felony conviction, Grace was working in corporate jobs, making enough money to support her three kids and give them a comfortable life – though they still lived in a neighborhood with a, perhaps uncomfortable, proximity to the more dangerous elements of life in 1990s Portland. However, after this period in rehab, Grace can no longer get the jobs she could before. She starts applying for menial jobs with low pay in retail and food service and eventually, ends up working at a fast food restaurant. Knowing that if she spends any time with her old friends she will use again, Grace tries to dedicate all her time to work, her children, and her church, which she uses to keep herself afloat despite the struggle to remain sober.

Meanwhile, Champ has a number of problems that his mother doesn’t know about. Champ is incredibly intelligent and has some college under his belt, but after watching his mother struggle to support is brothers, Champ decides its time for him to take to the streets to make some money for them. On top of that, Champ’s girlfriend, Kim, is pregnant – not that it stops him from cheating on her with other women – and he feels a need to provide. The only way Champ has ever known how to make money with his background is selling. Ironically, peddling the same drug that has ruined his mother’s life, Champ is determined to give his family the wealth and comfort he believes they deserve. He attends class during the day and wanders the streets at night, where police officers question his frequent streetwalking.

Problems arise when Big Ken, the father of Grace’s two younger sons KJ and Canaan, decides to take Grace to court to demand sole custody of their children. Big Ken has plenty of evidence that Grace is an unfit mother, after dozens of stints in rehab and the county jail. At the thought of losing her two boys and the only part of her life worth saving, Grace gives up and starts using again, eventually selling her body to make enough money to feed her family and pay for her drug habit.

The novel comes to a close as Champ drives his mother away from an appointment with a regular client – Champ is aware that his mother is using and that she is selling herself to get what she needs. The police pull their car over and find marijuana in the car, and both Champ and Grace find themselves stuck again in what appears to be a never-ending cycle of drugs and punishment, with no hope of a way out.

Mitchell S. Jackson is an American writer from Portland, Oregon who currently lives in New York City. He has written The Residue Years, Oversoul: Stories and Essays, and Head Down, Palm Up: Fictions and Autobiographies. Interested in autobiographical novels, he considers The Residue Years a meditation and reflection on what it was like growing up black in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. The Residue Years won a Whiting Award, an Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.