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Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley, begins with teenage Kiara and her best friend carefully crashing a funeral to cadge a free meal and steal a sweater. This is the feel of the whole story -- that a plate of snacks and a secondhand sweater is a good reason to fake grief, intrude on another family's worst day, and do a little petty theft.
Kiara tries to get a job, but without wifi or a smartphone or a car, she's basically walking door-to-door asking for work, and then explaining that she has no resume or work experience, and isn't 18 yet. Obviously, it's tough going, and her family's rent has been raised. Kiara's life in Oakland is remote, but it's not entirely remote. Everyone's been out of work and stressed about money, haven't we? Kiara sees people doing jobs that she could easily do, if anyone would hire her, if she were 18, if she had a car and a resume, if she had any options at all.
Kiara’s brother Marcus is convinced that with one more month of working on his rap album, stardom and financial stability will arrive. And it's not really a bad argument, for many creatives, a paid residency or a spouse with a solid job or family money can create the time and space for successful work, while for many people, having to hold down a job means postponing creative work, writing on the train, or whatever. The reader never gets the feeling that Marcus is an untalented hack or that the album is a ridiculous dream, just that while he gets to play and dream, someone else has to pay the bills. And that someone is Kiara.
Kiara stumbles into sex work, and thinks that it wasn't so bad, she could just do it until they've paid off the overdue rent. Nightcrawling reminded me a bit of how I felt reading Push, by Sapphire, by which I mean that I was simultaneously noticing that I was reading powerful, expressive writing and also yuck. So much yuck.
One really intense element of Nightcrawling was directly inspired by a true story. In Oakland, California, in 2015, a police officer really did write a suicide note containing information that led to an investigation into sex trafficking and sexual abuse by other police officers. (The CNN link uses "dating" as a euphemism, and the NPR one uses calm, polite language, but still, all the trigger warnings for the story in these links.) Elements of this story appear in the novel, although it's more than just a fictionalized account of the trial.
Nightcrawling is a difficult read, partly because I've completely burned out on the possibility of a redemption story where an abusive man (or men) gets caught and jailed. I had no hope that anyone who'd hurt and used Kiara would actually see consequences. If we, as a country, didn't believe Christine Blasey Ford, with her clear, educated speech and professional appearance, who would believe a dropout with drug arrests in her family, against Oakland cops calling her a liar?
Nightcrawling has a complicated but believable protag, with a moving, harsh look at the non-choices of poverty. The expressive, poetic phrases in this novel don't obfuscate the dark and revolting scenes, so you'll need to be in the right mood for this one.