I’d give “Tyler Johnson Was Here” a solid 4 stars, notably because I connected with the read on some personal levels and because it does manage to do well by delving into issues of cultural pride and identity, police brutality, the current events and social climate surrounding Black Lives Matter, and the struggle for recognition/fight against dehumanization so often noted and experienced in the African-American community. Being a twin myself and noting Marvin’s connection with Tyler, I could definitely identify with how close the two were. Knowing also few friends who lost their twin siblings early, the pain that comes with that is hard to put into words, but I did appreciate Coles’ attention to and openness with Marvin’s grief. Being a woman of color, I also appreciated the microscopic and macroscopic attention this novel gave to its racial conflicts from the eyes of its protagonist.
This is a story with many heavy layers and attempts to address those layers from the perspective of a geeky teenage boy left confused and distressed by the events around him. It showcases not just scales of racist attitudes in day-to-day interactions with people in his neighborhood, but also culminating in the event that has Malcolm and his friends remembering his brother in a hashtag: #TylerJohnsonWasHere. Marvin’s a rather distinct teen who’s self-aware, full of self and cultural love/confidence. He likes “A Different World”, he wants to go to MIT (at least at first), and he’s a supersmart kid just trying to fit in and survive to get out of the fate that the world sees fit to box him in, particularly with a father in prison and a mother who struggles to make sure her boys don’t get taken by the streets. (I could honestly appreciate the retro reference to “A Different World”, though I wonder if Coles could’ve also referenced other modern series that teens of color, particularly African-American teens, watch such as “The Get Down”, “Dear White People”, or “Black-ish/Grown-ish”.)
Things get complicated quickly after a party that goes horribly wrong. Granted, the racism that Marvin and his friends experience begin even before that party hits the pages, but it’s a turning point of the novel that sends Marvin reeling in horror and desperate to find answers when it seems no one else of authority (particularly where the police are concerned) can help. I felt that the characters could’ve used more fleshing out. The romance in here felt somewhat shoehorned in, but parts of it were sweet. Still, the narrative pulled me in and I was rooting for Marvin the whole novel. He shows a good bit of character growth up to the final points of the novel, though I honestly wish that the novel could’ve given more closure to certain plot points pertinent to the novel’s events (I would’ve liked to have seen the family get the justice they deserved, and even Marvin start his foot off in his new college life.)
Overall – it was an experience I connected with despite some qualms and general uneven presentation within the novel. I would like to see more work from Jay Coles to see more of his narrative style on the whole.
Overall score: 4/5 stars.
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher.