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Black Chalk


Black Chalk

BLACK CHALK is a disturbing piece that bounces back and forth across time and place. Debut author Christopher J. Yates takes nearly the initial third of the book to set up his game pieces and explain the rules, but sinks the hook into readers within the first few pages before embarking on a trip that, as with the best thriller novels, does not hint as to precisely where it is going, or why, until journey’s end.

The narrative is divided into alternating tracks of the past and present that bounce back and forth with each chapter. The story is reminiscent in a sense of William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, with the behavior of the participants being by turns more and less civilized than those of Golding’s oft-studied masterpiece. The island in this case is Oxford University and its surrounding environs, which is the setting for the book’s past. The focus is primarily but by no means exclusively on two first-year students. Chad is an American who attempts to play down his humble origins as a farmer’s son from upstate New York, while Jolyon is a funny if somewhat abrasive Brit possessed of an oddly magnetic personality; everyone wants to be his friend.

"BLACK CHALK is a disturbing piece that bounces back and forth across time and place.... Take the time that’s required to read this intriguing psychological thriller, and you won’t be sorry."

The two attend an activity fair at the school that leads them to the Game Society --- Game Soc --- where they pitch the idea for a role-playing game of sorts to an enigmatic trio known only as Tallest, Medium (whose given name we eventually learn) and Shortest. Four other students are recruited, money for the ultimate prize is obtained, and the game is on. The rules are somewhat complicated --- elements of poker and dice are used --- but the point of the game is that each player agrees that, if they lose a round, they must engage in what becomes increasingly embarrassing tasks devised by the other participants. If someone drops out rather than performs the task, that person forfeits all claim to his or her contribution to the winner-take-all pot, which is fairly considerable.

In the present, 14 years after the fateful year at Oxford, the narrative changes to the first person. The identity of the speaker, who is one of the participants of the game, is not immediately made clear, though we learn it soon enough. What is obvious from the top is that 1) it is either Chad or Jolyon, and 2) the narrator has sustained a major personality change since his University days. He is living as a virtual recluse in New York, subsisting primarily on a diet of pills and alcohol and living in an apartment in the East Village that he is turning into a hovel. The game, it appears, is finally about to come to an end, and one of the two remaining players seems ill-prepared to participate. There is much more going on and at stake than is immediately obvious. Even as the story concludes, Yates is still chucking concussion grenades into the small apartment, so that the arrival of the ending is somewhat of a surprise.

BLACK CHALK has a bit too much dialogue in spots, particularly in the first half, but ultimately it is all necessary. Again, Yates is full of surprises. He introduces a couple of pivotal characters near the end of the book, and a revelation concerning Game Soc, which is short but sweet, might even keep you up for a night or two. Take the time that’s required to read this intriguing psychological thriller, and you won’t be sorry.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 28, 2015

Black Chalk
by Christopher J. Yates