NIGHT CRAWLING. By Leila Mottley. Alfred A. Knopf. 288 pages. $28.
“Nightcrawling” belongs at the top of the list of “best first novels of 2022”. It’s not an easy read. The words flow viscerally, in your face, but the subject matter is graphic and relentless.
The first-person narrator is Kiara Johnson, Ki for short, a 17-year-old black woman living in East Oakland, California. When we first meet Ki, she lives with her slightly older brother, Marcus (he’s only 18), in an apartment complex called the Regal-Hi. Over time, we learn why there are no parents in the picture, but it’s clear from page one that Ki is growing rapidly, with no role models and no community support. In fact, she’s the one trying to help others – essentially raising her drug-addicted neighbor’s 9-year-old son, Trevor, who wouldn’t go to the school bus stop or have anything to eat if Ki didn’t walk upstairs. Times are tough, to say the least, and when Ki wanders into a strip club hoping to apply for a job as a bartender, things get much tougher.
Mottley does not fear the sequel. A customer assumes Ki is a prostitute, tells her he “knows a place” and within a page, her “cheek is pressed against the cement” of the sidewalk. The rape is over in seconds and as Ki writes, “I don’t even participate, I just let heaven calm me down as I go…and yet it’s so boring I’m never sure to be there.”
The events of the novel then unfold as the title verb becomes Ki’s way of paying the rent. His brother is lost in his own world, trying to make a rap album and follow in the footsteps of their wealthy Uncle Ty. After another sexual encounter with a smirking city cop who says her prostitution is a misdemeanor, Ki finds himself repeatedly victimized by members of law enforcement, until an internal investigation uncovers his name and suddenly being the star witness of a huge sexual exploitation scandal involving Oakland. Police department.
Mottley’s writing style fits the story perfectly. Ki’s voice is so honest and vulnerable, even as she tells stories of the past when her family was at least partially intact and life didn’t seem so hopeless. “That was before I learned that life won’t give you reasons for any of this, that sometimes fathers disappear and little girls don’t make it to another birthday and mothers forget to be mothers,” she wrote.
The novel would be completely dark without a character named Alé, a friend of Ki’s who works at her parents’ restaurant and cooks for her at least once a week to keep her from starving. The evolution of this positive relationship serves as a counterbalance to the depraved inhumanity that Ki experiences on the streets.
Inspired by the 2015 true story of Oakland cops who sexually exploited a young woman, “Nightcrawling” heralds a bold new voice in fiction.