BEFORE THE EVER AFTER
By Jacqueline Woodson
Zachariah Johnson Jr. (ZJ) is living a 12-year-old boy’s dream: His father is a star professional football player, he lives in a comfortable home in the suburbs with a half basketball court upstairs, he has a trio of friends who always show up at the right times and his budding songwriting talent seems destined to take him far.
He is also living a nightmare.
Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel, “Before the Ever After,” is not a work of horror (despite the haunting title), but a creeping, invisible force is upending ZJ’s world and slowly stealing away his father — known as “Zachariah 44,” for his jersey number — before his and his mother’s eyes.
The father’s hands have begun to tremble uncontrollably. He stares vacantly. He forgets basic things, most achingly the name of the son who bears, and at times is burdened by, his name. He’s prone to angry outbursts, to the point that ZJ’s friends no longer want to come by the house.
He is suffering the effects of a degenerative brain disease that, while not named, bears a strong resemblance to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which has been found in scores of former N.F.L. players. Until 2016, the league for years denied any connection between brain trauma on the field and hundreds of players’ crippling neurological ailments and, in many cases, deaths.
“My dad probably holds the Football Hall of Fame record for the most concussions,” ZJ says, relating how his mother has grown bitter about the game. “Even with a helmet on.”
Although you can envision fretful parents handing this book to young boys eager to play, it’s not a stern lecture. It’s an elegiac meditation on loss and longing told, like Woodson’s seminal memoir, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” mostly in verse.
This approach, and Woodson’s evocative language (“the night is so dark, it looks like a black wall”), helps pull us through the foreboding and gives us much to contemplate; leitmotifs such as trees and song deepen the story and provoke reflection on childhood, change and remembrance.
The story is set in 1999-2000, when the cost of brain injury in the sport was just starting to come to light. The uncertainty over what has happened, and what might be coming, bewilders ZJ and his mother.
“Sitting there with my mom and my dad snoring on the couch and the doctors knowing but not knowing,” he says, “I feel like someone’s holding us, keeping us from getting back to where we were before and keeping us from the next place too.”
This is largely a father-son tale, leaving ZJ’s mother in the background, revealed in the occasional tender scene — Zachariah 44 drapes his arms around her in a moment of clarity — but mostly in quiet anguish.
“I think they’re not telling the whole truth,” ZJ overhears his mother telling a friend. “Too many of them —”
ZJ is so disillusioned that he gives away one of his father’s coveted footballs to his friend Everett, in a scene that reminds us of the staying power of the sport: “Everett’s eyes get wide. This is Zachariah 44’s ball? I nod. For real?”
ZJ finds solace in the music, literal and symbolic, that he and his father have made together. “Until the doctors figure out what’s wrong, this is what I have for him,” ZJ says. “My music, our songs.”
Woodson has said she seeks to instill optimism and hope. ZJ’s patient and supportive mother and his group of friends who are always buoying him up serve that purpose here. Yet at times this striving for hope feels strained, given a condition that so often offers no Hail Mary. ZJ may not fully realize it, but we all know what’s coming. The nightmarish, seemingly irreversible decline of the once mighty and strong has broken the hearts and wills of football families. A lyrical portrayal of a player’s fade and a boy coming to terms with it doesn’t change that.