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A woman grabs a book from a cart. Photo from The Retriever Archives.

Review: Hear out R. Eric Thomas in “Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America; Essays”

Ballantine Books published R. Eric Thomas’ first book, a memoir titled “Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America; Essays,” on Feb. 18, 2020. Composed of 15 personal essays, the book follows Thomas through the ups and downs of his life so far. In “Here for It,” Thomas describes his younger self as “a little ball of potential (but oblivious) gay energy in a Baptist family from a black Baltimore neighborhood.” His essays explore his journey through self-doubt into self-discovery and acceptance as he weaves together complex themes of race, sexuality, love and more in his essays, and develops a strong and unique voice that bolsters the book’s excellent humor.

Thomas is a former University of Maryland, Baltimore County student who worked for The Retriever Weekly, the previous title of this newspaper.  In one of the essays in the book, called “Something Is Wrong on the Internet,” Thomas focuses on part of his time at UMBC, when he gained internet notoriety for an online published article, which he intended to be satirical but was not received as such. This section is particularly intriguing as it is from the point of view of a current UMBC student, and Thomas skillfully sets up his discussion in later essays of writing in the age of the internet.

In his essays about his life during college, Thomas writes with the wisdom of experience but also with honesty. He details the joy he found in such small and crucial things as candy bars and friendship, but does not shy away from describing his turmoil. His stories all add up as he paints a picture of his younger self struggling with his mental health and self-image in terms of his race, his sexuality and its coexistence with his religious beliefs and romantic endeavors. His essays move chronologically and thus progress with time, showing Thomas marvelously bring pieces of knowledge from other times in and out to contextualize each essay. He connects each aspect to the bigger picture, as a story about a time that has impacted his life.

Thomas’ essays are distinct, but are all strongly in his voice; he narrates, explains his thought processes and adds appropriately funny asides. The last device tends to become tiresome with overuse in personal essay collections, but Thomas is always purposeful and inventive in his writing. His essays are easy to read, wise, encouraging and engaging, especially through his humor. He turns phrases matter-of-factly without being overly self-deprecating and also crafts jokes that resonate with and bring a smile to the reader.

“Here for It” is a set of emotional, genuine and hilarious essays. Thomas’ stories, and his courage to tell them, will inspire readers to connect with or learn about the problems and triumphs that he has experienced. He treats his story as human and himself as a human being who has lived and will continue to live in and work on this flawed world by loving himself and others.