- What: Three-Fifths
- Who: John Vercher
- Pages: 240
- Genres: Contemporary fiction and crime
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
Winter 1995. Pittsburgh. A hate crime occurs and intense arguments ensue over race relations. Racist undertones permeate conversations between any two people of different races, and a young man with a mixed identity is afraid to be himself and live his truth.
June 2020. We have a global pandemic that has everyone at home and unable to avoid current events. Because of that, nobody can ignore or deny the atrocious and racially motivated death of George Floyd. It sparks protests and conversations about race and white supremacy (both explicit and implicit forms), and it ignites hate crimes and defensive attitudes from white people about racial disparity and inequality in America.
Twenty-five years is the only thing marking the difference between present day and the fictional tale told in John Vercher’s debut novel, Three-Fifths. Sadly, inequality still exists to the same degree today as it did 25 years ago, and white supremacy, hate crimes, and racist remarks aren’t just fictionalized. Vercher’s story could have happened in 1995, and we certainly know it still happens today. The only difference, as Van Jones remarks in the Netflix documentary, 13th, is that today these offenses can be filmed on phones. It makes you question if we as a society and as individuals have grown at all in 25 years. It’s hard to see how.
“He held no regret for what he’d said, but regretted the necessity.” — Three-Fifths
Twenty-two-year-old Bobby Saraceno has “passed” as white his whole life despite having a Black father he’s never met. In fact, the only two people who know of his mixed race are his alcoholic and destructive mother and the grandfather who helped raise him, the man who taught him that white is right. His bigoted grandfather found out about Bobby’s Black father the same day Bobby did — when he was 11 — which ended up being the same day he kicked out his daughter and grandson. You know the reason why.
Bobby has held onto some of those racist teachings 11 years later. He’s also kept the secret of his father from everyone, including his best friend, Aaron, who was recently released from a three-year stint in prison. He barely notices his best friend, considering the once skinny and nerdy comic book kid is now a muscular “behemoth” with violent scars and new, disturbing tattoos — ones that symbolize his joining a brotherhood of white supremacists.
On his first night out of prison, Aaron commits a hate crime and makes Bobby his accomplice. Aaron’s actions don’t just disturb Bobby (like Bobby’s inability to do the right thing), but they also prove that he can never let his true identity be known; otherwise, his own life will face the same consequences as the poor Black man Aaron has abused.
These scary yet realistic moments occur right as Bobby meets the Black father he thought was dead, the man who never even knew he was a father. He’ll have to cope with not just recognizing who he is but also the ramifications of living as this person in his world, which forbids it.
“‘It was easier not to face it. I didn’t want to be scared, to have who I loved be dictated by fear.'” — Three-Fifths.
Starting this book with a hate crime delivers a powerful message from the beginning. By doing this, Vercher does more than suggest you cannot ignore or downplay the severity and reality of the situation. He demands you recognize it. This isn’t the climax, a one-off action toward which every other action has built. This is a daily occurrence for the Black community in this country.
In its review last year, Kirkus Reviews called it “A sad, swift tale bearing rueful observations about color and class as urgent now as 24 years ago.”
Reading it in 2020 with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain still very fresh (as they should be) puts into perspective just how much racism pervades our country and how little has changed since the riots that Rodney King‘s brutal beating sparked in 1992 or since 1995 when this novel takes place. You are forced to recognize the similarities between the events from the 90s and the present day, as well as the lack of progress. That’s the novel’s point.
Furthermore, this is a novel about identity and how human beings, especially people of color and those from mixed backgrounds, grapple with who they are and what that means for their place in society. Bobby has struggled with this since learning his father was Black at the age of 11. Even after learning of his identity, he’s failed to abolish the bigoted and racist ideas that his grandfather implanted at an early age. In high school, once meeting Aaron who “dresses and acts” Black, Bobby tries convincing him to not act like those “animals” and to have self-respect. Passing as white matters to Bobby because of the opinions his grandfather believed and instilled and also because of the value society places on whiteness.
“‘I think you look in that mirror and tell yourself you’re white because you think it’s what you have to do to survive. That it’s what makes you happy and keeps you safe.'” — Three-Fifths
Even Aaron, for all his ideas and beliefs on supremacy, grapples with his sexual orientation, what that means for his identity, and the consequences of that becoming public. Isn’t it easier to hide the parts of us we wish we could change rather than explore and proclaim them? Aaron and Bobby have this in common all because this is what our communities have made us to believe.
The only negative in the book is the speed at which Vercher ends the narrative. For all the points he makes and proclaims, he doesn’t quite provide them with the time and finesse they deserve. The ending happened almost too fast for me, and I felt like the heaviest moments passed by without my full understanding. This distracted from the above-mentioned themes.
Regardless, those themes could never be lost with Vercher’s writing and story, and they dictate conversation long overdue in our racist society.
“It would be better if we were having conversations about it rather than talking at each other, and as always, books are some of the best means to spark those kinds of conversations,” said Vercher in his interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “It was my hope that Three-Fifths could do that, even for the smallest of audiences.”
Vercher far exceeds his hope with Three-Fifths and provides a disturbing narrative that can easily serve as the foundation and reality of past and current affairs. We can only hope that, one day in the future, that foundation will crumble.
“‘But it’s fair to demonize an entire race based on the actions of criminals?'” — Three-Fifths