“Wolves” by Jeffrey ‘Boosie’ Bolden, a review of the last book of a young man’s career
On June 23, 2020, Jeffrey “Boosie” Bolden died of injuries suffered after being hit by a car. Bolden was a writer, poet, and artist – a man on the brink of previously unseen professional success with his memoir, Wolves, set to be published in November 2020. He was only 32 years old.
In simple terms, Wolves is the memoir of a black man growing up in modern America. But Wolves can’t be defined in simple terms. Throughout the text, Boosie demands a more complex explanation. Wolves is a self-described “mixtape” of life events for a young man who never once doubted the power of his art. Part dreamlike statement of purpose, part expression of the black experience, Wolves blends storytelling styles to point towards his own bright future.
While reading Wolves, it’s impossible to ignore the reality of Bolden’s untimely passing. Other labels must be affixed to the book — “definitive,” “ultimate” work of Jeffrey Bolden.
Throughout the book, Bolden is certain he is destined for greatness. At six years old, he begins to hear lyrics floating through his mind. A beat begins to play and Bolden can’t sit still, tapping on his desk to the music in his head:
Poetry’s wolf-child. I willed myself to quiet. But the howl remained. The rapping. The rapping. It beat as if always there.
At seventeen, Bolden makes a grand proclamation to Black Dawg, an original gangster (OG) and man to be respected in his neighborhood:
I told him my first car was going to be an all-white Rolls Royce. . . I was going to write books to pay for studio time, link up with a producer. . . hustle my way up to a million, all while getting my college degree.
While the essays weave their way around the experiences that shaped Boosie — watching his brother get arrested, standing up to his tormentors at school, evacuating New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — the narrative is driven by intense ambition. One of his ambitions is to become “[t]he bridge between my culture and the literary world.”
Though there’s never a lack of connection between Bolden and his culture, Wolves is not a traditional black memoir. Many African-American memoirs might be told in chronological order with the inciting being a realization that being black means being different in some way. This moment stirs internal conflict in the protagonist as the writer wrestles with the shame of being different before becoming proud of their identity.
Unlike more traditional memoirs, Bolden is unabashed and unapologetic about his blackness from the beginning of the book:
There were only three black people in the entire MFA class of 2018 at Chatham University. I was the only nigga
The texture of Wolves is Bolden’s identity. We see Black and Mild pipe cigars and Popeye’s Chicken, rap and hiphop playing as the soundtrack to Boosie’s life. He deftly describes dark fingers wrapping around the neck of a Hennessy bottle, hair braided into plaits, bronze skin and a complexion like brimstone, perfect almond eyes and Nubian noses. Not every book has these details; few make them so tangible.
Where Wolves is most connected to the black community is with the music it creates. Each chapter of Wolves is labeled as a “track” and named after rap songs from artists such as Nas and Nipsey Hustle. The structure of the book itself is described by Bolden as a “mixtape.”
Mixtapes change in subject, tone, and sometimes even genre, from track to track. In a mixtape, time is irrelevant; usually nonlinear. They end up as a deep expression of one’s self, often a plea for artistic recognition. Wolves fits these parameters. Throughout, Bolden states his intention to be respected as a writer — calling his shot, as many hiphop artists do.
What most closely reflects a traditional mixtape is Bolden’s use of time. The book opens after 2016 then the next page turns to 1993. Tracks may start in 2011, then move to 2002 before ending in 2019. Bolden’s ambition and understanding of the world moves the book and builds the story through these shifts in time. What could have been abrasive functions as an important storytelling element.
By the start of Track Two: I Don’t Stress, the reader is immersed. Shifts in time are no longer an issue. Likewise we relish poetic language blending with concrete reality.
We were the Jaguars, roaming through a country jungle in Summit, Mississippi. . . We rode down Delaware, passing Waffle House, Burger King, Popeye’s. . .
If there’s a weakness in Wolves, it’s the lack of resolution in some of the stories told. Characters who seem like they’ll be meaningful appear and disappear in the same sentence. Serious conflicts arise and pass without resolution. This is an intentional stylistic choice but it’s one that left me unsatisfied.
There was room for more. I wanted more, not only because of questions left unanswered but because I enjoyed the book itself. Knowing this is it — this is the last work of Jeffrey Bolden — certainly adds to that feeling.
However, Wolves had to end. And when it did, the ending fit eerily well. After his first successful spoken word performance, Boosie travels back to McComb, Mississippi – where he finished high school – to seek out Black Dawg, the OG to which he first foresaw his destiny. When he gets to the house, he finds out Black Dawg has passed away only a few weeks earlier. He writes,
You blessed little nigga. / Those were the last words Black Dawg ever said to me.
In the same way the last words spoken by Black Dawg to Boosie are a blessing and inspiration, so too are the last words written by Boosie. What feels like an early entry into a lengthy writing career instead is the last in a life cut short. It’s sad to think this, but in Wolves, Jeffrey Bolden never lingers on hard times for too long.
Wolves is a hard work to define. I think that’s why I liked it so much. With memoir as a genre, there’s often a linear tale of adversity being confronted and then overcome. An individual tries to fix a problem, they fail, they try again, then they fail again or, eventually, succeed “their own way.” The closest comparison may be Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. Johnson’s book is fiction, a collection of short stories joined by a single protagonist with a disjointed mental state, similar to Boosie’s. If there’s a through conflict in Wolves, it’s Boosie’s unwillingness to compromise doing things his own way. Conflict comes from the world in Hurricane Katrina, from society in encounters with law enforcement, and, a consequence of Bolden’s death, in the turning of the pages. Read it slowly and savor it; his story ends too soon.
Peter Frankman is an American-born writer. His work has been featured in Hold Open the Door: A Commemorative Anthology from the Ireland Chair of Poetry. He is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin’s Oscar Wilde Centre and the University of Iowa. He lives in Colorado.