Long Way Down by prolific and award winning author/poet Jason Reynolds tackles the troubling issue of gun violence. In this novel-in-verse, the events are narrated by fifteen-year-old William Holloman whose nineteen-year-old brother Shawn was shot and killed the day before. Will compares the loss of his beloved brother, who taught him how do a "Penny Drop", to having a molar pulled. For him it feels strange and hard to say "Shawn's dead.".
Beside him was his girlfriend Leticia, screaming as he lay dying. The police arrived and asked if anyone saw anything but no one said anything because the rules are no crying, no snitching and get revenge.
Now a day later, back in their 8th floor apartment, Will is in the bedroom he shared with Shawn, covering his head with his pillow to block out the sobs of his mother. On the other side of the room, Shawn's side, sits his dresser with the middle drawer jammed shut. But Will knows what's in there: "A tool for Rule No. 3" Will believes it was Carlson Riggs who shot his brother because Riggs recently joined the Dark Suns gang and because he had to show he belonged with them. And because of the crime shows Will has watched with his mom. He always knew who the killer was. It is his special gift.
Will manages to force open the drawer enough to get the gun and decides he will avenge his brother's death. His plan is to wait for Riggs in the morning at the front of his building and shoot him with his brother's gun. Will slips quietly out of his apartment, careful not to disturb his mother, and enters the elevator. It is seven floors down to the lobby. Seven floors to think about what he's about to do. Seven floors for fate to intervene.
**this review contains spoilers**
Long Way Down is a haunting novel that explores the impact of gun violence on the lives of young people today and the cycle of trauma, anger and loss that this violence breeds. The day after the murder of his older brother Shawn, fifteen-year-old Will takes his brother's gun with the intent to kill the person who murdered him. Will, like his father, his uncle, and his brother has been taught to follow, unquestioningly "The Rules" which consist of
3. Always get revenge
After Shawn's murder, Will has followed the first two "rules"; he hasn't cried nor snitched and he is about to follow through on the third, by killing his brother's murderer.
He takes the elevator from his family's 8th floor apartment to the lobby but in those 60 seconds, the elevator stops at each floor and a new person enters the elevator, a time stamp marking their appearance. Will meets six people from his past who have lost their lives because ofthis rule; Buck who was Shawn's friend, Will's childhood friend Dani, Will's Uncle Mark who is his father's brother, his father Mikey Holloman, Frick (Frances) who is the man who murdered Buck, and finally his brother Shawn. Each of these people are ghosts, who Will can see, touch and talk with, but who have no reflection in the elevator doors. Each of these people challenge Will in a different way to reconsider what he's about to do.
Buck's presence shocks Will because he knows Buck is dead. Buck knows exactly what he's planning and tells Will he is no killer. "It's a long way down." he tells Will. When Dani enters, Will doesn't recognize her at first and is shocked she can see Buck. Dani was killed when she was eight-years-old and is wearing the flower dress she died in but looking eight years older. Her death led Shawn to teach Will "The Rules" and she questions him to consider what will happen if he misses, implying that this is how she died, hit by a stray bullet intended for someone else.
His Uncle Mark who was a drug pusher, walks Will through the scenario of Will actually killing Riggs:
"I mean, let's play it out,
how this whole thing it gon'
go down. Play it out
like a movie."
Will struggles to finish the end of the "movie" of him shooting Riggs. When he finally says the word "shoot" it is painful:
"it was like the words
came out and at the same
time went it.
into me and
chewed on everything
inside as if
I had somehow
my own teeth
and they were
I'd ever known."
Will believes after he kills Riggs it will end but Uncle Mark tells him "It's never the end, Never."
Will's father Mikey Holloman whom he doesn't really remember "was killed for killing the man who killed our uncle" as Shawn has told him. When Will's father questions him as to what he thinks he should do, Will responds, "Follow The Rules." However his father explains to Will how devastated he was when his brother Mark was killed.
"I was shattered. Shifted.
Never the same again.
Like shards of my own heart
shivving me on the inside,"
Mikey explains that when he followed "The Rules"; he killed the wrong man. To emphasize what it is like to kill someone, Mikey puts the guns to Will's head, terrifying him to the point that he pees his pants.
On the third floor, Frick whose real name is Frank, steps onto the elevator. He was a member of the Dark Sun gang who murdered Buck as part of his initiation into the gang. It was Frick whom Shawn murdered. Frick shows Will the reality of what he's about to do by showing him his wound, made by Shawn when he shot him.
exposing a hole
in his chest,
but not bleeding.
fingerprints are in
Will tells Frick that he intends on killing Riggs, but Frick doesn't know any Dark Sun member by that name.
The final person Will sees is his brother Shawn, who enters the elevator wearing blood stained clothing. Although Shawn greets his uncle and father, Shawn doesn't speak to Will, doesn't return his hug and doesn't smile at him. As Will fights the urge to cry, Shawn cries, breaking the first rule.
"his face was wet
with tears he wasn't
supposed to cry
when he was alive,"
By crying Shawn is showing Will, it is okay to break the rules, that they should not be followed. Will in turn begins to cry, thus breaking the first rule and opening up the possibility of breaking the other rules too, especially the last one - seeking revenge by murdering his brother's killer.
When he arrives in the Lobby, watching the dead leave, Shawn poses a question to his brother. It is the only thing he says to Will. Will must choose to either follow "The Rules" like his uncle, father and brother and likely end up dead or in jail for murder, or ignore the rules, mourn their deaths and live, breaking the cycle of violence. Each person he met in the elevator has left him with questions; What happens if he misses and kills someone else?, Does he know for certain Riggs killed his brother?, What if he kills the wrong person? His father showed him what it feels like to have a gun pressed to your head, knowing you will die. Together these people have forced Will to confront the reality of what he's considering doing; both the consequences to himself and to others.
Reynolds has stated that the inspiration for this thought-provoking novel was the murder of his close friend when he was nineteen-years-old. The gruesome murder led his other friends to consider murdering the person responsible. Reynolds noticed how the murder affected normally peaceful people who, because of their pain and trauma, wanted to kill someone. It was his friend's mother who made them reconsider what they were thinking of doing. He also wanted to write about the codes that exist in neighbourhoods were violence and poverty have been a cycle that has existed for several generations. That code is the no crying, no snitching and always seek vengeance when a murder happens and it leads to the cycle of violence.
Reynolds felt that verse was the vehicle of choice for this story because its attenuated form allows the writer to pass on the sense of urgency, claustrophobia, anger and pain that the main character, Will is experiencing. According to Reynolds,poetry has a way of being immediate and being urgent". The author's use of verse is masterful, employing imagery and metaphors, anagrams, shape poems and background shading throughout the novel. For example, the smoke in the elevator represents the confusion Will feels regarding the visits by the various ghosts and his intended course of action. It grows especially thick after Buck and Dani arrive but clears when his father who died when Will was three, enters. The elevator is frequently described by Will as a steel coffin, alluding to the fact that it holds all the dead people Will knows, those who lived by "The Rules".
Long Way Down is a powerful, realistic novel exploring the issue of gun violence and the pain and trauma this violence has on individuals in communities at risk. While it can be read quickly, Long Way Down challenges readers to really think about these issues in our communities. Readers should take the time to explore the imagery and use of metaphors in the novel. This brilliantly crafted novel is suitable for ages 13+ and recommended for teen book clubs.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
New York: Atheneum 2017