A Mini Rambly Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

“When Marvin Johnson’s twin, Tyler, goes to a party, Marvin decides to tag along to keep an eye on his brother. But what starts as harmless fun turns into a shooting, followed by a police raid … ” — [X]

Okay, maybe that “harmless fun” part is a bit of a lie, given that they attend a party where one of them is almost choked by a gang member, but generally the party is a pretty relaxed affair. Until, of course, the police raid.

Marvin and Tyler lose each other in the chaos. Marvin goes home, but Tyler never does. In the Tyler-less days that follow, Marvin wrestles with himself about whether or not to tell his mother. Ultimately, he does. But he also speaks with the kid who got arrested that night. If Marvin chooses to bail the guy out, he may be lead to wherever Tyler is. It’s a difficult position to be in, especially for someone who really didn’t want his brother to associate with this gang.

Of course, anyone who’s read the synopsis knows what really went down. Tyler left the party, was pursued by cops, and then, was shot by one. The brothers who came into the world together, would not have the chance to grow old together. First, policemen come to the Johnsons and ask them to identify a body. Then, someone posts video footage of a cop shooting Tyler. And Marvin’s life is turned inside out.

The book is as difficult to read as the subject matter suggests. It even starts off with a sucker punch to the gut, with a depiction of police brutality at a corner store. The lady who owns it, barely makes a sound of protest as a cop assaults a young Black boy.

Marvin can’t help but feel outraged at her silence, especially when they’d shopped there before. He is, of course, powerless to protest in that situation. It is Tyler who pushes back. But bravery and defiance are not valued in people, unless they are white, and as the novel moves along, it almost feels like Tyler pays for his show of dignity.

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It is harder knowing how many cases like these have happened, and how very few of the victims (or their families) found any justice at all. Worst of all, Marvin is expected to just get on with it, to figure out what happens after high school, as if this was merely a setback.

The book is a harrowing read, as it should be. But it is also insightful and kind and resolute. I only wish the last quarter of the novel did not speed through events as much, but then again, I can only imagine how difficult writing such a story can be. A solid debut from Jay Coles. I can’t wait to see what comes next from him.