The Hamilton Spectator

School for the Grifted

A young writer creates a career for himself by exaggerati­ng or even manufactur­ing stories of tragedy.

- By MATEO ASKARIPOUR MATEO ASKARIPOUR’S debut novel is “Black Buck.” His second novel, “This Great Hemisphere,” will be published in July.

THERE’S REAL VALUE in being a victim. Serious profit in pity, but only so long as you don’t become too ambitious, too greedy or too arrogant. Veer too far, and you run the risk of becoming dependent on disaster. That’s when real trouble ensues.

And that’s exactly what happens to Javier “Javi” Perez, the hustling Icarus at the center of Andrew Boryga’s energetic and deeply satisfying debut novel, “Victim.”

The story, which is presented as a memoir written by Javi himself, is at once an act of redemption and condemnati­on. As Javi explains in the first sentence, “I wasn’t trying to play the victim until the world taught me what a powerful grift it is.”

Boryga’s novel opens with Javi’s youth. He was born in the Bronx to working-class, Puerto Rican immigrants. To outside eyes, his background is rough, but, from his own perspectiv­e, it’s not hell. Misfortune does eventually manifest for Javi when, at 12, he witnesses his father’s fatal shooting. Surprising­ly, he’s only shaken, because, as Javi explains, he was “losing a person who was only kind of there.” However, Javi soon learns that within tragedy lies opportunit­y. Assuming he’s traumatize­d, his teachers give him a free pass to go to the nurse whenever he wants, which he frequently uses to cut class. It’s his “first taste of the high that comes from being a victim.”

Javi’s main goal in life is to “become a famous writer who makes bank,” but before that: college. He assumes he’ll just go somewhere local, but his guidance counselor, Mr. Martin, urges him to consider “more prestigiou­s” institutio­ns, like Donlon University, which offers full-ride scholarshi­ps for “poor, underserve­d minority students.” The key to these scholarshi­ps is to write an essay stuffed with tragedy and trauma — basically catnip for the admissions committee.

“I had never thought about my life in that way,” Javi muses. In his eyes, he’s not a victim; he’s not “poor. But poorish.” Still, Javi writes the essay and it works: He gains entrance to Donlon. It’s a critical lesson that teaches our inner-city Icarus how to fly — Javi realizes that his personal history and his skin color can be a gold mine and that, “with people like Mr. Martin, I was rich.”

His ascent continues at Donlon, where he becomes the first Latino columnist of the school newspaper in its 100-year exis

tence. But instead of writing his truth, he constantly stretches it, lying about various instances of victimizat­ion. And just as they did with his college essay, people eat it up. His editors place his first column “prominentl­y on the front page,” and his “exaggerate­d and outright manufactur­ed” writing brings Javi more and more success, earning him first attention, then freelance pieces in a famous magazine, then a job as a staff writer at the storied publicatio­n. But like Icarus with his wings of wax, Javi learns that counterfei­t fabricatio­ns eventually fall apart.

IN “VICTIM,” BORYGA skillfully conveys that “victim” is often an external label slapped onto us (“It was in one of my very first classes,” Javi hilariousl­y recounts, “that I learned something profound: I am a victim of systemic oppression”), but whether we rock it proudly or reject it loudly is up to us. Regardless, every choice comes with a consequenc­e.

It’s a thorny and nuanced conversati­on, but Boryga handles it judiciousl­y. His prose is animated and active; his character writing is a crowning achievemen­t. The people who populate the book are, at first glance, so familiar that they could devolve into caricature, but with Boryga’s empathetic prose and startling self-awareness, they come to life with beating hearts and distinct personalit­ies without sacrificin­g veracity. The sum of this is a story that reads like an enthrallin­g account told by a friend rather than some stuffy, moralistic cautionary tale. Boryga is having fun, and he’s inviting us to join in.

But let’s be clear: Though Boryga is playing, he’s not playing around. Through Javi’s story, Boryga humorously and scathingly calls out the gluttonous consumptio­n of stories of victimhood. Javi’s scam is possible only because he understand­s that people will all too willingly, and uncritical­ly, embrace tales of woe in order to reinforce their own sense of self and morals — especially in public. The perils of this, the novel suggests, are twofold: It strips victims of their personhood, reducing them to faces on T-shirts and pixels on a screen, while also cultivatin­g a society fertile for fraud. Yes, Boryga’s critiques are uncomforta­ble, and entirely necessary. His debut signals the arrival of a writer courageous enough to dive into the difficult head-on.

A thrilling work that requires a sense of openness and surrender, not only does this novel place the onus on us to decide whether Javi is a victim, a victimizer or both, it also forces us to interrogat­e our own complicity in the commodific­ation of being a casualty. Because, as Javi says: Life ain’t neat. “No one among us is righteous.”

Let’s be clear: Though Boryga is playing, he’s not playing around.

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