Literature For Life: Eric Jerome Dickey

For the first Literature of the Mind column we are going look at a multiple time New York Times Best Selling Author use a genre of fiction that is usually derided into humane look on how emotional relationships are developed. Eric Jerome Dickey never lets race become the forefront of his novels but he never forgets what identity is defined by race. His novels are about characters first and steamy romance and violence afterwards. The four books highlighted for Dickey are perfect encapsulation of the ethos he has set for his career. For the recommendation section, we are going to look at four novels by African American authors who are also interested in the way character identity is defined through setting and age. These novels include an London drama about adulthood by Zadie Smith, an influential LA noir by Walter Mosley, a Faustian tale set in Harlem by Mat Johnson and a Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson.

For an African American writer there is pressure from the literary world to produce novels and stories that deal with the African American struggle. But, not everyone can be Toni Morrison or Ta-Nehisi Coates. For the last 20 years, Eric Jerome Dickey has consistently released potboilers of sex, violence and strangers within the city landscape. For those with derisively high-brow tastes, they would mistakenly label Dickey’s work derogatorily as “street lit.” But that is undercutting the way in which Dickey is able to perceive black identity through the genre of romantic erotica.

Dickey did not start out as a New York Times Best Selling Author. He did not even start his career as an author to the middle of his life. He was an engineer for nine years mostly as a software developer in the aerospace industry in Los Angeles. But, the creative field called out to him (and the decline of the aerospace industry). As a creative release, Dickey began to attend creative writing classes, write short stories and screenplays and even began moonlighting as a stand-up comedian.   

It was through these myriad of experiences that Dickey began to develop a keen eye for creating characters with complexity beyond the surface level expectations. He began to gain notice when joined the International Black Writers and Artists, an organization dedicated to developing burgeoning African American writers. He won a scholarship through the organization to attend UCLA creative writing classes and began having his short stories published in prominent African American literary magazines.

Dickey’s first novel, Sister, Sister, was released in 1996 after drafts upon drafts sent to literary agents and publishing houses. From there, Dickey has released one to two novels a year, garnering a wide audience. These have led to opportunities in comic books, when Dickey wrote a six-issue miniseries run about Storm and Black Panther, and in movies. His 2001 novel Naughty or Nice has been optioned by Lionsgate to become a film in the foreseeable future.

Dickey’s success is his ability to create binge worthy novels of intrigue and salaciousness. His varying influences of Walter Mosley and Stephen King is evident in his writing. But most importantly, his novels are captivating because his characters’ complexity far surpass what usually populates this genre. These stories are propulsive pulp novels in the best of ways. It feels dirty, titillating, yet, there is no guilty pleasure in reading his novels. That is because Dickey smartly uses sensuality and violence as a way to propel identity politics.

There is nobody that can dismiss Eric Jerome Dickey’s success. And if you actually read his novels, there is no way to dismiss his work as low brow. Beyond the clichés that are associated with the preconceptions of his book jackets, it’s obvious that Dickey is a loud voice in contemporary African American literature.

 

Recommended Books by Eric Jerome Dickey

Sleeping with Strangers: Sleeping with Strangers is the first book of the Gideon Series, about the sexy, violent hitman, Gideon, and it is classic Dickey. This is the best example of Dickey’s vivid world building in which he constructs a seedy underworld of the business of hit men and central London. Dickey’s giddiness to be writing about emotionally isolated characters in a sociopathic world is radiant throughout the pages. It is also his most binge-worthy novel.

Friends and Lovers: Friends and Lovers is necessary to fully understand Dickey’s mastery of characters and identity. Released in 1999, this was Dickey’s break out hit and possibly his most personal work. That is because the two main male characters is a software developer and a stand-up comedian (sound familiar?). The story follows those two as they embark on different relationships while going through different stages of their careers. Both pairings are going on opposite trajectories until one incident occurs. Dickey knows these character and the assuredness of those characters in his hands allows for an roller coaster of emotions. This is quite possibly Dickey’s best novel.

The Other Woman: Eric Jerome Dickey’s interests are undoubtedly in how human relationships function when placed against pressures of the modern age. The Other Woman is also a familiar story of a couple slowly growing apart due to the circumstances of life. What could have easily been an Unfaithful like retelling of marital infidelity changes into an empowering novel of a woman learning to love herself above any guy’s affection. The skill of Dickey comes with his slow deliberate build to the fantastically pulpy second half.

Naughty or Nice: Multiple characters are a specialty for Dickey. He especially has a penchant for portraying women in a way most male authors are not able to do. Naughty or Nice is about three sisters on vacation as they are on a personal journey of self-discovery. While the title offers a scintillating image than the novel actually provides, the humanity of the three sisters are in the forefront. This novel has been picked up by Lionsgate to become a feature film.

 

Recommendations: Eric Jerome Dickey Edition

NW by Zadie Smith: Zadie Smith became a literary rock star with her novel White Teeth. Like Eric Jerome Dickey, she is a contemporary African American author who excels most when writing about multiple people. Her novels multiple viewpoint perspective set against the modern backdrop of London allows themes of race, assimilation and social status to shine. NW is a passionate piece of work that jumps through prose, stream-of-consciousness and dialogue. That vibrancy of the novel about four locals in Northwest London trying to navigate adulthood is definitely worth a read.

Devil in the Blue Dress by Walter Mosley: This is the first novel in a series about private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rollins. What makes this different from most potboilers P.I. is that it is written by an African American author about an African American P.I. in 1950’s Los Angeles. LA noir has been long monopolized by James Ellroy but Mosley puts his stake on the ground. Devil in the Blue Dress is as much an LA novel as it is a noir. Like Dickey, race is never an issue on the forefront but always relevant throughout. But, the most fun of the Mosley’s work is the sweat that he is able to influence as you turn the pages. There was a screen adaptation released in 1995 directed by Carl Franklin and starring Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle.

Hunting in Harlem by Mat Johnson: Mat Johnson did the impossible by creating a narrative that is a history lesson about the Harlem, is subtly a discussion about gentrification and an engrossing, funny, and incredibly sharp novel all at the same time. Hunting in Harlem follows three ex-cons who seemingly found a second chance working for a realty company who is hell bent on creating a second Renaissance in Harlem. The three is forced to deal with a Faustian type choice when they learn how the realty company is willing to do in order to achieve that.

Fences by August Wilson: This isn’t a novel but the famous play from two-time Pulitzer prize winning playwright August Wilson. Wilson is an incredibly perceptive playwright, writing characters emotionally vulnerable to the life. Fences is Wilson’s most celebrated play, just as readable as it would be to see it perform onstage. The novel takes place in Pittsburgh as part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle about a family whose patriarch lives with bitterness from racial tensions and hard times that seep into the family psyche. It is an astute reading of institutionalized repetitions of cycles within a gripping family drama. The play is now being adapted into a film by Denzel Washington.