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In Jesse McCarthy's Debut Novel, A Young Black Man Goes In Search Of Himself


Jesse McCarthy's debut novel ranges around the world - Brooklyn, Brazil, Montevideo and Paris. But as Jonah Winters makes new friends and is sharpened by new experiences, is he still in search of himself? Jonah is a young Black man who grew up in France but now teaches school in Brooklyn, which he considers, quote, "a high-wire act." And after a chance meeting in a bar and an unexpected inheritance, he takes off - in search of what? The author of this new novel, "The Fugitivities," is an assistant professor of English and of African and African American studies at Harvard. So Dr. Jesse McCarthy joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JESSE MCCARTHY: Good to be with you.

SIMON: You were, as I read your biography, once a teacher of young children. What does Jonah find uncomfortable about teaching?

MCCARTHY: What he ends up finding uncomfortable is coming up against the feeling that many of the reasons that he's gone into the profession and the things that he's seeking to achieve as a teacher - to help a community, to give his students probably the kinds of advantages and opportunities that he's had - he's sort of coming up against some of the harder realities and sort of facts on the ground in terms of not being able to make the kind of difference, the kind of impact he imagined he might have going into it.

SIMON: Tell us about the fateful meeting Jonah has in the book with, I confess, my favorite character, Nathaniel, who's a retired NBA player and gives him a kind of mission.

MCCARTHY: It's a chance encounter, but it's also the meeting of a younger man who is caught in a moment where he's very much adrift and an older man who has made some decisions about what he can do in this sort of latter part of his life. They are in many ways, obviously, sort of allegorical figures. And part of what I wanted to do was to sort of have them hash out the things that they see in each other that run parallel, but then also throw into relief the stakes and the costs of taking different directions from that point onward.

SIMON: You know, New York City, as I don't have to tell you, is the world. I don't mean it's the entire world, but it has bits and pieces and shards that reflect the entire world. What does Jonah think he can discover in Rio and other places?

MCCARTHY: Well, I would say that New York City is both, yes, in some sense, this extraordinary center where everything in the globe seems to show up and to crisscross. But that same energy can also be overwhelming. I think Jonah is trying to get away from, in some sense, not only the place he's in, but the time that he's in. This is sort of George Bush-era New York City. There's a kind of hopelessness in that place and a sense that there must be something more, there must be an outside. And I think part of what he's trying to do is see what it would be like to be outside of the grip of that, the vice of that. But as he will discover, that's not so easily done.

SIMON: I'm sure I wouldn't be the first one to tell you, who's read this book and loved it, it's often hard to like Jonah. He roams the world, but it doesn't seem to affect him. As he says, I feel empty inside about everything. I hate everything.

MCCARTHY: Well, what I would say is that every novel, every book is made out of other books. And one of the things that I was trying to do in this novel was really to bring together a number of different literary traditions and to see if there was a way that I could combine them in a kind of new constellation. And one of the most important novels that sort of lies behind this one is Flaubert's "Sentimental Education." One of the things that's key not even so much to Jonah as a character, but to the tonality of the book as a whole is that it's meant to be deeply ironic. The persistence of failure to kind of get it and a persistence of a certain kind of self-delusion even was something that I wanted to be at the center of the book. But it is true that the novel's judgment of him is somewhat unsparing.

SIMON: Do you think somebody will finish your novel, put it aside and say, I've got to see more of the world? Or will they say, it doesn't make any difference; you have to work on yourself wherever you are?

MCCARTHY: I hope that the novel is genuinely ambiguous on this point.

SIMON: Jesse McCarthy - his debut novel, "The Fugitivities" - thank you so much for being with us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you, Scott. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.