WSJ Review

July 26, 2013

A Vital Vernacular

To tell the tale of wayward girl from New York’s housing projects, Hannah Weyer has fashioned a narrative voice that sounds like singing.

By Sam Sacks

At 14, AnnMarie Walker is a mix of cunning self-sufficiency and childish infatuations. Living amid the housing projects of Far Rockaway, a gritty neighborhood on the coastal edge of New York City, she is fatherless, cares for her invalid mother and is pregnant by an older boyfriend.

But the soon-to-be single mother sneaks off to a movie tryout and is cast as a lead in an art-house film, playing a high-school girl in a neighborhood that closely resembles her own. The role splits her life into strange parallel tracks as she struggles with her young baby and an increasingly violent boyfriend on one hand and with memorizing lines for all-day shoots and traveling to the Sundance Film Festival on the other.

Hannah Weyer’s debut novel, “On the Come Up” (Nan A. Talese, 310 pages, $25), is the story of AnnMarie’s coming-of-age. She writes with confidence and agility, and readers will quickly sink into the groove of her storytelling.

AnnMarie is modeled on Anna Simpson, the 15-year-old from Far Rockaway cast as the lead in the 2000 film “Our Song.” From interviews with Ms. Simpson and the rhythms of hip-hop and R&B, Ms. Weyer has fashioned a vernacular voice that is a lot like AnnMarie’s singing, with “the backbeat as the pulse, her voice lifting, pushing toward the ceiling, spreading sweet and clear.”

Ms. Weyer isn’t the first novelist to draw from urban speech and song. The street-slang connoisseur Richard Price renders the punchy back-and-forth of dialogue like the call-and-response of jazz musicians, and Junot Díaz’s inimitable “ghetto nerd” soliloquies have the hard accents of spoken-word poetry. But AnnMarie’s interior monologues feel hypnotic and impromptu, silkily cadenced with what freestyle rappers call flow—as when she anxiously introduces her urbane, white film director to her mother: “[S]he had to deal with the TV trays and setting out little plates and finding napkins and when he finally got to it, explaining the movie and AnnMarie’s role, she held her breath, thinking, Don’t switch up, don’t switch up, please don’t switch up and change your mind. She could hardly concentrate, picturing her life through his eyes—the mad small apartment, even with the kitchen window open the room felt stifling, her mother sitting there in that too-tight dress, lipstick on, one a her eyeballs not working, staring sideways.”

“On the Come Up” isn’t a cloying rags-to-celebrity tale. While the film does well—critics amusingly call AnnMarie’s performance “authentic”—it’s only a one-off for our heroine. Thrust back into the reality of scrimping for diapers, she takes up work as a personal caregiver to elderly shut-ins. Yet “having gone out into the world and come back again” gives AnnMarie a glimpse of a future beyond Far Rockaway. Ms. Weyer convincingly charts the brave steps she takes to get there.