An upside of the troubled time in the publishing world of late seems to be an increased appetite for experimentation and risk-taking. Perhaps this mood of “try anything once” is what brings us Nick Earls’ new book, Gotham, the first in a new series of five loosely connected novellas titled Wisdom Tree to be released on a monthly basis and then in a collection at the end of the year.
The protagonist of this first instalment is Australian writer Jeff Foster, in New York to interview rising rap star Na$ti Boi. Jeff meets Na$ti and his minder, Smokey, at Bloomingdale’s, where the rapper is having an after-hours private shopping spree. Jeff observes everything keenly, knowing he’ll have to find a new “angle” on Na$ti, a task made harder by the fact that his subject is clearly wary of journalists.
There’s an interesting tension in this early section, a sense of conflicting agendas rippling below the surface, which Earls conjures well. But he fails to build anything interesting on these foundations and the tension soon fizzles out. It’s telling that a book this short feels unnecessarily long.
Earls clearly cares about popular music, which makes his lazy portrait of Na$ti Boi – taking up the majority of the novella – so dismaying. When rap and hip-hop artists are making some of the most intelligent, interesting music in the world right now, writing a character such as Na$ti Boi – a self-absorbed, cocaine-snorting, porn star-screwing, money-obsessed, gansta-rap cliché – seems boring at best and potentially racist.
And it’s frustrating that Earls can’t even seem to get the cliché right. The sections about Na$ti are chock-full of bum notes; it seems deeply implausible that a rapper as generic as Na$ti would be championed by Jay Z or have an aborted stint as Beyoncé’s support act. Earls is on much surer ground when the narrative returns its focus to Jeff, and the final scene featuring Jeff and his daughter, Ariel – whose difficult circumstances are obliquely mentioned throughout the preceding narrative – in a chance encounter with Smokey is genuinely affecting.
Wisdom Tree is a bold, interesting project, and the books themselves are beautifully produced. But at $19.99 each, the first instalment would need to be pretty spectacular to persuade readers to shell out $100 for the whole series as it comes, and that’s a bar Gotham doesn’t clear. DV
Inkerman & Blunt, 136pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 30, 2016 as "Nick Earls, Gotham". Subscribe here.