Sunday, January 31, 2021


THREE-FIFTHS by John Vercher (Pushkin Vertigo, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Pittsburgh, 1995. The son of a black father he’s never known, and a white mother he sometimes wishes he didn’t, twenty-two year-old Bobby Saraceno has passed for white his entire life. Raised by his bigoted maternal grandfather, Bobby has hidden the truth about his identity from everyone, even his best friend and fellow comic-book geek, Aaron, who has just returned home from prison a newly radicalized white supremacist. Bobby’s disparate worlds crash when, during the night of their reunion, Bobby witnesses Aaron mercilessly assault a young black man with a brick. 

Fearing for his safety and his freedom, Bobby must keep the secret of his mixed race from Aaron and conceal his unwitting involvement in the crime from the police. But Bobby’s delicate house of cards crumbles when his father enters his life after more than twenty years, forcing his past to collide with his present. 

One of my very favourite things as a reader and book reviewer is when I come across a new-to-me author who proceeds to knock me over with the quality of their writing and storytelling. I read a lot, and much of what I read is enjoyable and ranges from good to great, but it's a rarer occurrence that I'm floored. Last year that happened to me a couple of times, including this absolute knockout of a novel that was recommended to me by fellow reviewer Paul Burke (who writes for NB Magazine). 

THREE-FIFTHS is a swift uppercut of a story. The kind that lures you in then leaves you reeling, in the best way. Pennsylvania storyteller John Vercher takes us back in time, to the mid-1990s. Bobby Saraceno is a young biracial man in Pittsburgh who’s managed to ‘pass for white’ throughout his life. 

Reuniting with his high school best friend Aaron one snowy night, after Aaron is paroled from prison, Bobby’s pleased to see his fellow comic book geek. But things change; prison’s turned Aaron from scrawny to muscled and added scars and troubling tattoos. When a young black man at a diner spies the white supremacist insignia inked into Aaron’s skin, events escalate and Bobby must confront his own identity and bigotry after he becomes an accomplice to a savage hate crime. 

Should he turn himself in, or would that be suicide? His world spinning, Bobby’s also got to deal with an alcoholic mother and her sudden plan to introduce Bobby to the black father he never knew. 

This is the kind of book that you describe as 'leaving me breathless'. It's taut storytelling that skips along on powerful prose. It may look slimmer on the shelf, but it packs an awful lot in. For me, John Vercher is one of those writers that makes you sit up and take notice. His prose has flair and punch, and he's unafraid to take readers into some tough places. His crime writing is thoughtful, and powerful. 

I was whisked through the pages, wanting to know what would happen and fearing what may happen. The characters draw you in, then stick with you long after the final page. When events spiral out of control, it still feel realistic and organic rather than 'author hand' or heavily plotted. Vercher poses and explores big issues, texturing his tale of a few people living everyday lives without overwhelming it. 

Compulsive and confronting, THREE-FIFTHS is something special. Brutal and brilliant. 

John Vercher is now on my must-read list, and I'm excited about his next novel. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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