By Jacqueline Woodson
Zachariah Johnson Jr. (ZJ) is living the dream of a 12-year-old boy: his father is a star professional soccer player, he lives in a comfortable suburban home with half a basketball court upstairs, he has three friends who always show up to you right time and his emerging songwriting talent seems to get him far.
He's 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 rises ZJ's world and slowly steals his father – known as "Zachariah 44" his jersey number – in front of his eyes and his mother.
The father's hands have started to shake uncontrollably. He stares blankly. He forgets basic things, most painfully the name of the son who bears his name and is sometimes burdened by him. He is prone to outbursts of anger to the point that ZJ's friends no longer want to come past the house.
He suffers from the effects of a degenerative brain disease which, although not mentioned, bears a strong resemblance to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) found in dozens of prior N.F.L. Player. For years until 2016, the league denied any connection between on-field brain trauma and the debilitating neurological complaints of hundreds of players and, in many cases, death.
"My father probably holds the Football Hall of Fame record for most problems," says ZJ, recounting how bitter his mother has become about the game. "Even with a helmet."
While you can imagine angry parents passing this book on to playful boys, it is not a rigorous lecture. It is an elegiac meditation on loss and longing that, like Woodson's seminal memoir "Brown Girl Dreaming," is told, mostly in verse.
This approach and Woodson's evocative language ("the night is so dark, it looks like a black wall") help us move through premonition and give us much to contemplate; Leitmotifs such as trees and songs deepen the story and encourage reflection about childhood, change and memory.
The story takes place in 1999-2000, when the cost of brain injury in sports was only just emerging. The uncertainty about what happened and what could come confuses ZJ and his mother.
“I'm sitting there, my mother and father snoring on the couch and the doctors know but don't know,” he says. "I feel like someone is holding us tight, preventing us from going back to where we were before, and keeping us away from the next place too."
This is largely a father-son story that leaves ZJ's mother in the background and is revealed in the occasional tender scene – Zachariah 44 puts his arms around her in a moment of clarity – but mostly in silent fear.
"I think you are not telling the whole truth," ZJ overhears his mother telling a friend. "Too many of them -"
ZJ is so disaffected that he is giving away one of his father's coveted soccer balls to his friend Everett in a scene that reminds us of the stamina of the sport: “Everett's eyes widen. This is the ball from Zachariah 44? I nod. Really?"
ZJ finds solace in the music, literal and symbolic, that he and his father made together. "Until the doctors find out what's going on, I'll have that for him," says ZJ. "My music, our songs."
Woodson said she wanted to convey optimism and hope. ZJ's patient and supportive mother and group of friends who keep cheering him up serve this purpose here. Yet sometimes this pursuit of hope feels strained in the face of a condition that so often does not offer hail Mary. ZJ can't fully see it, but we all know what's coming. The nightmarish, seemingly irreversible decline of the once mighty and strong broke the hearts and wills of football families. A lyrical depiction of the fading of a gamer and a boy who has come to terms with it doesn't change that.