Vercher’s astute observations on race try to make sense of this decision. From the ingrained racism of Bobby’s grandfather, to the murderous anger of Aaron who wants revenge on “those fucking monkeys in high school”, to the fact that newspapers give the attack in the fast food restaurant less than a full paragraph, everywhere Bobby looks black people are treated woefully. In a later section where he meets his father – another character whose back story is compelling and believable – the advice that he’s given is to always remember who he is. His father, a doctor, doesn’t look in the mirror every morning and think about the fact that he’s a physician. “Black first,” he tells Bobby. “Not remembering that can get me killed.”
Recent Black Lives Matter protests have brought the issue of race to the forefront of American politics again. Vercher’s searing first novel is set 25 years ago, but its subject couldn’t be more timely. A young man called Bobby Saraceno has grown up in a poor area of Pittsburgh, where his struggling white mother waited until he was 12 to tell him that his absent father was black. Bobby, who has always “passed” as white, lives in terror of being found out, a deception that fills him with guilt.
Three-Fifths is inspired by Vercher’s own experiences as a student in Pittsburgh. It explores the turmoil that is Bobby’s inner life – he is mixed race, passing as white, and even Aaron, racist, violent and utterly miserable, doesn’t know the truth about his friend. “Each time Bobby glanced at Aaron he tried to picture the boy he knew before he got locked up, hoped every blink would bring him out of some fever dream, sweating under the comforter, huddled up on his couch, but all he saw was that black kid’s face smashed to hell and his stomach turned.” Shortlisted for prestigious American crime prize the Edgar best first novel award, this is short, lucid and harrowing, as Bobby, terrified about his complicity in Aaron’s crime, spirals closer to disaster.