The Talented RibkinsFiction
Reviewed By Nick Fuller Googins
- Melville House (2017)
- 304 pages
Johnny Ribkins has one week to scrape together one hundred thousand dollars for a mob boss. This is the opening premise that launches the action in Ladee Hubbard’s debut novel, The Talented Ribkins, and although the driving conflict is pretty straightforward, the events and surrounding characters are anything but. For starters, the Ribkins family has something interesting going on with their genes. Johnny, at seventy-two, can draw maps of any place, whether he has ever been there or not. One of his cousins can project illusions of herself, while another cousin spits fireworks. Johnny’s uncle can mimic any sound, and his teenage niece can summon small objects with her mind. All of them can see in the dark. While not exactly the enviable superpowers of Black Panther or Wonder Woman, they are powers nonetheless, and they make for a fun, fresh take on a familiar story.
Johnny Ribkins knows where to find his money. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he must crisscross the state of Florida to dig it up. As a younger man, he worked with his half brother to form a cat burglar heist team: Johnny drew the maps and his brother, who could scale any wall, did the stealing. What remained of their loot, Johnny buried in backyards and abandoned lots from Tallahassee to Tampa. As Johnny drives from spot to spot with his thirteen-year-old niece, their treasure hunt becomes the structure for the novel, introducing us at each new stop to fellow members of the Ribkins family and important clues about their troubled past.
The past plays a complex role in all our lives, but for Johnny and his talented family, the past seems to hang over every waking moment, and for good reason: the novel takes place over the course of the seven days of Johnny’s Florida treasure hunt, yet the action in the present cannot operate fully without the two rich backstories that Hubbard layers into the narrative.
The earlier of the two backstories takes place during the Civil Rights movement, when Johnny and his cousins founded the “Justice Committee” to protect activists from the violence of white supremacy and the state. Johnny describes the committee to his niece as “a group of people trying to do what they could to keep their heroes safe,” and when his niece says that most folks don’t think about heroes as the people who need saving, Johnny replies, “I don’t know what most folks think. That’s how we felt about it. Felt like we needed heroes. We just wanted them to keep going.”
It’s a brilliant move on Hubbard’s part—rather than have the Ribkins attacking the forces of racism head-on, she instead has them work as superhero bodyguards for the movement’s true heroes, the organizers and leaders risking their lives for the cause. By doing this, she introduces two of her novel’s most powerful themes: 1) Real power comes from regular people; and 2) true, lasting justice will not be won overnight.
As Johnny drives around Florida digging up his stolen loot, he reconnects with former members of the Justice Committee. Through their reminiscing, we learn how the committee subtly thwarted car bombings, protected student demonstrators, caught the perpetrators of racial violence, and rescued victims, all without public acknowledgement or even mention. They were activist superheroes participating in the shadows of the Civil Rights movement. The only trouble with this backstory is that it is so utterly compelling, at times it risks swamping the novel’s present action.
The second backstory is far less glamorous, following Johnny and his family as they suffer setback and after setback. It starts when Johnny becomes obsessed with drawing a master map to help the Justice Committee navigate power itself, enabling them to attack the root causes of oppression rather than tangling with surface conflict. A noble idea, but the map is too confusing and ultimately elusive, consuming Johnny in A Beautiful Mind sort of way, and bankrupting the Justice Committee in the process. After they disband, Johnny meets his half brother, Franklin, and together they form their two-man heist team, sneaking into mansions and high-rises to steal valuables and information. During one heist, while posing as caterers in white jackets, Johnny reflects on this turn his life has taken:
Once, Johnny had seen himself as part of a massive shift, as someone who had the power to help make a better world. Now he and his brother slipped through the shadows, trying not to draw attention to themselves, hiding behind white jackets. And mostly he was all right with that. He’d never really recovered from his failure with the Justice Committee and, in an effort to never again inflict his confusion on anyone else, had freed himself of any sense of responsibility to anything larger than himself and his brother. But sometimes, when he looked at Franklin, he couldn’t help but wonder if free was really the right word for what they had become.
Johnny’s worries are well founded; his and Franklin’s line of work does not end well. Decades later, Franklin is dead and Johnny owes a mob boss one hundred thousand dollars. This brings us back to the present, where Johnny and his niece will have to rely on their talents a few more times before the book’s end.
The Talented Ribkins, in some ways, can be taken as three impressive novellas braided together: the Florida treasure hunt, the Justice Committee years, and the heist years. That Hubbard is able to juggle these three comprehensive narratives at all is a feat, and all the more so when she combines them into a realistic superhero novel dealing with themes of racial justice, class, power, and politics. Her book, she explains in interviews, draws inspiration from W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous essay, “The Talented Tenth.” In his essay, Du Bois encourages Black America to nurture its most educated: “It is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races.” Du Bois also writes, however, not to lose sight of the big picture while focusing on the details: “Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers.” The echo from Du Bois is clear here: Ladee Hubbard is a seer, and The Talented Ribkins is but a window into her vision.
Nick’s fiction has been read on NPR’s All Things Considered, and has appeared or is forthcoming in the Paris Review, the Southern Review, Ecotone, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program and recipient of a fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers. He lives some of the time in Los Angeles and some of the time in Maine. In his non-writing time he installs solar panels, tutors kids, and plays the trombone.