Review of John Vercher’s ‘Three-Fifths’

9781947993679_3c3edJohn Vercher wrote an attention-getting debut with Three-Fifths in the best way. He takes on the incendiary topic of race and the violence that comes out of it yet does it in a meditative way, knowing it can’t help but be provocative. He examines these issues in a very intimate way, by creating characters who are fully fledged people dealing with those issues.

At the center of the tale is Bobby Serrenco, a young bi-racial man passing himself off as white his whole life. He lives with his mother Isabell, an alcoholic trying to do her best who work with him in the same restaurant. The only thing he seems to live for is comic books.

Bobby picks up his friend Aaron who has just been released from prison. partly due to a beating and sexual assault by black inmates and joining the Aryan Brotherhood to survive, Aaron has become a white supremacist. We feel for Bobby as Aaron sprays racist rhetoric out of his mouth, not knowing what we know. Soon, he will have to deal with not just Aaron’s actions, but his words.

They stop at a popular Philly eatery for Aaron’s first meal back out. A young black man notices Aarons’ prison tats and verbally berates him. It leads to a scuffle in the parking lot, where Aaron shatters the man’s face and puts him in a coma, making Bobby both a witness and accessory.

The physician treating the victim of this hate crime is Dr. Robert Winton, Bobby’s father. A chance meeting with Isabell at a bar triggers the other thread of the story, intertwining with the one of the crime, and setting off a series of circumstances that forces everyone of these characters to face who they are and the secrets they’ve kept.

Vercher mines the issue of race deeply and with a mindful precision. He is not interested in condemnation. He assumes the reader believes racism is evil. Through well constructed characters that breathe and move through their messy lives, he examines race and class in how each person deals with it philosophically, emotionally, and through interactions with one another.

Bobby’s dilemma, takes the difficulty many of us had to deal with with a bigoted loved

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 one, and amplifies it to eleven. He agonizes as he justifies who Booby has become, defending him, while he wants to tear down that thinking. He reflects back to when they were both bonded by being comic book nerds in school, making them the other together. The crime not only tests his morality, but his identity, something that is even pushed further when he meets his father.

Dr. Winton is also trapped in his secrets and past. He has been trapped in a cultural double standard as a black man. He must excel to shed low expectations of who he is thought to be, but has to “stay black’ to many in his family. He carries the same weight in baggage as his son.

Aaron could simply be the lost, racist friend, but we get his unending loyalty to Bobby.


The book does two smart things with setting. Working  class Philadelphia serves as the
backdrop. Most of the characters have little That loyalty is a double edged sword, since he expects Bobby to go to the same extremes for him. He has learned that hate is a better way to survive than to live in fear. His racism is more shield than outlook, yet he has to believe it with full conviction to protect him.

respite or escape from their situation. Identity is both currency and trap. In this respect, I couldn’t help but think of many of George Pelecanos’s works. He places it during the O.J. trial, where, for those who remember, it seemed most people seemed to publicly voice their opinions on race, in restaurants and the workplace, no matter how misguided or wrong headed.

Three-Fifths is the first book to come from Agora, an imprint from the impressive independent publisher Polis. Its mission is to bring more diverse voices to print. Three-Fifths proves that this endeavor not only does good deeds, it provides great fiction.

John Vercher will be at BookPeople on September 22 at 2PM presenting his debut novel, Three-Fifths, alongside Jamie Mason and her latest, The Hidden Things.

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