BEFORE THE EVER AFTER
By Jacqueline Woodson
Zachariah Johnson Jr. (ZJ) resides a 12-year-old boy’s dream: His father is a star skilled soccer participant, he lives in a cushty residence within the suburbs with a half basketball court docket upstairs, he has a trio of buddies who at all times present up on the proper instances and his budding songwriting expertise appears destined to take him far.
He’s additionally residing a nightmare.
Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel, “Earlier than the Ever After,” is just not a piece of horror (regardless of the haunting title), however a creeping, invisible pressure is upending ZJ’s world and slowly stealing away his father — generally known as “Zachariah 44,” for his jersey quantity — earlier than his and his mom’s eyes.
The daddy’s palms have begun to tremble uncontrollably. He stares vacantly. He forgets staple items, most achingly the identify of the son who bears, and at instances is burdened by, his identify. He’s susceptible to indignant outbursts, to the purpose that ZJ’s buddies not need to come by the home.
He’s struggling the consequences of a degenerative mind illness that, whereas not named, bears a powerful resemblance to continual traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which has been present in scores of former N.F.L. gamers. Till 2016, the league for years denied any connection between mind trauma on the sphere and a whole bunch of gamers’ crippling neurological illnesses and, in lots of instances, deaths.
“My dad in all probability holds the Soccer Corridor of Fame file for probably the most concussions,” ZJ says, relating how his mom has grown bitter in regards to the recreation. “Even with a helmet on.”
Though you may envision fretful mother and father handing this guide to younger boys wanting to play, it’s not a stern lecture. It’s an elegiac meditation on loss and longing instructed, like Woodson’s seminal memoir, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” principally in verse.
This method, and Woodson’s evocative language (“the night time is so darkish, it appears like a black wall”), helps pull us by means of the foreboding and provides us a lot to ponder; leitmotifs equivalent to timber and music deepen the story and provoke reflection on childhood, change and remembrance.
The story is ready in 1999-2000, when the price of mind harm within the sport was simply beginning to come to gentle. The uncertainty over what has occurred, and what may be coming, bewilders ZJ and his mom.
“Sitting there with my mother and my dad loud night breathing on the sofa and the docs realizing however not realizing,” he says, “I really feel like somebody’s holding us, protecting us from getting again to the place we had been earlier than and protecting us from the subsequent place too.”
That is largely a father-son story, leaving ZJ’s mom within the background, revealed within the occasional tender scene — Zachariah 44 drapes his arms round her in a second of readability — however principally in quiet anguish.
“I believe they’re not telling the entire reality,” ZJ overhears his mom telling a buddy. “Too lots of them —”
ZJ is so disillusioned that he offers away one in every of his father’s coveted footballs to his buddy Everett, in a scene that reminds us of the endurance of the game: “Everett’s eyes get large. That is Zachariah 44’s ball? I nod. For actual?”
ZJ finds solace within the music, literal and symbolic, that he and his father have made collectively. “Till the docs work out what’s flawed, that is what I’ve for him,” ZJ says. “My music, our songs.”
Woodson has stated she seeks to instill optimism and hope. ZJ’s affected person and supportive mom and his group of buddies who’re at all times buoying him up serve that function right here. But at instances this striving for hope feels strained, given a situation that so typically affords no Hail Mary. ZJ might not totally notice it, however everyone knows what’s coming. The nightmarish, seemingly irreversible decline of the as soon as mighty and robust has damaged the hearts and wills of soccer households. A lyrical portrayal of a participant’s fade and a boy coming to phrases with it doesn’t change that.