“That’s what this week was, a bunch of prickly things sticking into me,” muses 13-year-old Kevin Phifer, near the beginning of Zero Fade, Chris L. Terry’s debut. In the week that the story spans, the prickly things sticking into Kevin include: being grounded, Tyrell—the bully, his mom going on a date, and his crush–“fine, orange-haired Aisha”—saying he has a “mushy tushy.” But, on the plus side, his cool uncle Paul takes him to the barber to get an ill fade.
Kevin is a normal teenager, on the brink of the wilderness of the world, in that place where adulthood is so far but feels so close. His desperation to grow up forms his character’s primary motivation. He fantasizes about a relationship with Aisha, gradually working up the courage to ask her to a movie. “A titty feels like a Nerf ball a titty feels like a water balloon a titty feels like a beanbag chair,” he wonders.In one scene, he overhears two classmates talking about how one of them, Demetric, had fingered a girl the day before. In gym class, after, Kevin is hyper-aware of Demetric’s hand, watching the way he touches the basketball (“Has he washed [his hand] since yesterday? … Was he getting pussy smell on the ball?”), smelling his own shirt after Demetric touches his shoulder (“Which hand did he use to tap me?”) Later, when Tyrell attacks him on the basketball court, Kevin thinks, “I’d been elbowed in the head, hit in the ribs with a ball, had the wind knocked out of me and had never fingered anyone like Demetric.”
Though primarily told in Kevin’s voice, Kevin’s uncle Paul narrates a section of each chapter. At first this seems a strange choice on Terry’s part, but its purpose becomes clear almost immediately. The reader learns long before Kevin does that Paul is gay, and this builds tension between these two characters in a way that could not have been accomplished in only Kevin’s perspective. Kevin looks up to Paul more than anyone else but believes wholeheartedly that “being gay is the worst thing possible,” while Paul is torn between wanting to be honest with Kevin, and his understandable fear of their relationship changing when Kevin finally learns the truth. Terry builds this tension slowly and masterfully through dialogue, such as an instance where Kevin asks Paul if his new fade “looks gay.” Kevin watches Paul’s mouth freeze, hears him exhale, and fears that Paul will say yes, that Kevin “did something gay by accident.” Paul’s pain as he finally tells Kevin that he “got a good haircut” is nearly visceral—it has become the reader’s pain as well, already.
Terry pays as much attention to the development of Paul’s character as he does Kevin’s, even though Paul receives less page time, and thankfully Paul does not fall victim to stereotype. However, the same cannot necessarily be said about Xavier, Paul’s crush, who also happens to be the barber who cuts Kevin’s fade. At the beginning, Xavier seems to exist only as a device to incite Kevin’s naivety about homosexuality—as he is a stereotypical gay man in Kevin’s eyes—and at the same time to prove Paul’s homosexuality. However, by the end, Xavier proves himself as a fully fledged and necessary character.
There is something magical in the way that Terry captures Kevin’s world. Kevin is at once vulgar and sweetly innocent, and his voice on the page is electric, as flowing and rhythmic as his favorite Biggie Smalls songs. His perspective is unflinching, and sometimes gruesome, and Terry does not back down in painting the world through sensory images. The reader not only sees and hears the world through Kevin’s eyes, but also smells Tyrell—“like cabbagey old sweat, tobacco smoke, and oil”—as he grips Kevin in a headlock, and tastes Kevin’s burps after eating spaghetti.
Kevin is black, and lives in the south during the early ‘90’s. These facts frame the narrative, and his character, as they should, but I felt a deep personal connection to Kevin even though I am white, and female, and was a teenager in the rural and suburban Midwest a decade later. Kevin’s voice, though unique and rife with individual problems, is the voice of anyone who has ever been thirteen.
Even though Kevin does not learn what a titty really feels like by the end of the novel, the other problems of the week are wrapped up a little too neatly. However, Kevin ends the novel as he should, looking forward, allowing the reader to still cheer him on after the last page, and consider the possibility that nothing is ever really as neat as it seems. As a whole, Zero Fade succeeds, entertains, and sets the bar (and my excitement) high for Chris L. Terry’s future novels.
Zero Fade will be released in September.