By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down begins by telling the reader, “The known facts surrounding the shooting death of sixteen-year old Tariq Johnson are few.” The very ideas of “truth,” “fact,” and what can be “known” are called into question on every page of this powerful study of a community’s response to the death of a black teen at the hands of a white shooter.
Red. Black. White. That’s all I remember. It was a blur, like a dream sequence in the sort of movie that comes with subtitles.
Red. Blood, spreading like spilled ink.
Black. His hair and skin, and the tar beneath him. He was kind of sprawled out, and it seemed almost right for him to be down there, like he blended in.
Within a few pages of the novel’s beginning, Tariq Johnson is dead, but becomes the center of everyone’s attention, echoing the frenzied media coverage of previously unknown teens who have been killed in similar circumstances in real life. Because of these parallels, it’s a novel which is difficult to read as fiction, such is the authenticity of Magoon’s writing; it feels more like reportage than a work of fiction, particularly in the injustice of the white shooter acting with apparent impunity. Beginning in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, before taking in eye-witness accounts of the event, How It Went Down uses the voices of eighteen characters to recount Tariq’s short life, his death and its consequences. These voices range from his family and childhood friends to the gang members eager to recruit him, as well as characters with a more peripheral involvement in events. Magoon reflects at the end of the book that she initially had thirty narrating characters, and the reduction in number is wise; those closest to Tariq feature most prominenty, but the additional voices are crucial in revealing the complex layers of Tariq’s life and death.
The use of so many narrators is confusing at first, but it soon becomes clear this is an effective strategy for highlighting the difficulty in establishing the truth in a situation like this. For example, while Tyrell is convinced that Tariq, his best friend since childhood, had nothing to do with the local gang, the Kings themselves claim otherwise. Further reflecting the real life cases from which it takes its inspiration, How It Went Down doesn’t offer a conclusive portrait of Tariq; whether he had actually joined a gang or not is a secret that dies with him. Magoon presents an emotional but unsentimental account of Tariq’s life and death. While Tyrell continues to idolize his friend, another character, Noodle, repeatedly dismisses the heartache over Tariq’s death, claiming “he had it coming.” In creating such a contradictory picture of Tariq, Magoon perhaps presents a more realistic character than those with which the real-life media present us. Tariq was no angel in life and is not depicted as one in death either, but this does not minimize the empathy created for him or his grieving family.
Among the eighteen narrators, there is not one who fails to engage the reader. Jennica is first on the scene after Tariq is shot, attempting futile CPR; Sammy is another old friend of Tariq’s, entrenched within the Kings; Tina is Tariq’s younger sister, bereft without her idol. Magoon uses Reverend Alabaster Sloan to satirize the religious and political grandstanding which frequently follows an event like Tariq’s death, and he is one of many who blame themselves in some way for what has happened; aware of the ways in which he is using the tragedy to claim political capital, Sloan admits, “Tariq Johnson is dead, and I wished for it. Not for his death, specifically, but for something a whole lot like it.” Will is another character with no personal relationship with Tariq, but his response is deeply affecting; removed from Peach Street by a wealthy stepfather, Will seems to experience something akin to survivor’s guilt as he feels dutybound to honor Tariq’s memory. It is a character with the closest bond to Tariq who resonated the most with me, however; his mother, Vernesha, is dignified in her grief, aware of the potential impact of her response in terms of repercussions on the street.
The tiny children line up to get on the school bus. They are barely as tall as the tires. Their backpacks hang off them like potato sacks, all lumpy and jouncing on the backs of their knees.
Tariq was once small like that. He went off to school. I sent him out into the big bad world alone.
I didn’t worry enough.
How It Went Down is an important novel. It is stark and unflinching in its presentation of a fractured community in which gang-imbued nihilism is a constant threat, although there is hope in among the fear and sadness. Magoon’s use of an oral history style adds authenticity and immediacy to the narrative, with the variety of voices demonstrating the far-reaching impact of one death. It’s certainly not a book I’d describe as entertaining, but it is both necessary and compelling.
How It Went Down is available now at GPL.