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Catalog » Browse by Title: K » Knucklehead



A fierce, intelligent, and often hilarious novel about a young African American attorney who struggles to keep his cool in the personally and politically turbulent ’90s.

$15.95 $11.96

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What people are saying…

“By setting his novel in the ’90s, Smyer, who lives in Oakland, has crafted some brutal deja vu. As Marcus reflects on Rodney King, the Million Man March and the Oklahoma City bombing, we think of Freddie Gray, Black Lives Matter and school shootings that have become a way of life. And when Marcus laments San Francisco’s dwindling black population, here we are more than 20 years on, and it’s only gotten worse. We should all be furious.”
San Francisco Chronicle

Shortlisted for the 2018 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence!

Adam Smyer has been named the African American Literary Awards Show’s Break-Out Author of 2018 for Knucklehead!

“Here is a list of things you’ll need to read this book: ample space for stretching out the side stitches you’ll get from laughter; half a box of tissues for the most gripping and harrowing dramas at the heart of the novel; a fresh stress ball for the tense situations the protagonist finds himself in (both of his own doing and not); and just a bit of that space in your heart to see people, in all their complexity, trying to do their best.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“While loss and loneliness are at its core, Knucklehead is a mordantly funny book.”
San Francisco Chronicle, Recommended Reading

“This laugh-out-loud novel, set mostly in the 1990s Bay Area and written by a Black Bay Area attorney, details the misadventures of a funny, smart, outrageous, volatile and young Black lawyer whose life spins out of control as he faces personal and societal demons.”
San Francisco Examiner

“Like Smyer, the book has a wicked sense of humor, even as it gives the reader a tour of the dystopian Clinton years. Comparisons to James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston are well earned, yet there are also strains of Anthony Burgess and Hubert Selby Jr. in Smyer’s prose.”
48 Hills

“This funny, rambling story about a Black attorney in the ‘80s and ‘90s is a Salinger-esque take on racism and masculinity. Author Adam Smyer’s voice is sardonic, smart and memorable as he narrates the journey of feisty Marcus, who moves to California and finds love . . . for a while.”
Ozy, included in a California-themed weekend roundup

“[Knucklehead] was one of those books that stayed with me days, weeks after I read it.”
Everything Went Black with Mike Hill

“Smyer, allowing Hayes to tell his own story, accomplishes something that Ralph Ellison was unable to achieve with his unnamed protagonist in Invisible Man and that Richard Wright did not quite pull off with Bigger Thomas in Native Son . . . Funny, astute, multidimensional Hayes, by opining on his own experience, resists being read as a stereotype . . . Knucklehead would not be out of place on a shelf of books by Ellison, Wright, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Updike, and other writers who have tried to capture what it means to live in America.”
The Literary Chick

“[A] masterpiece . . . In this, his debut narrative, Smyer dramatically encapsulates the ancestral trauma, the collective guilt and suffering of tens of millions of people. Indeed he has scored big. Real big . . . A must buy.”
Kaieteur News (Guyana)

“While not strictly a crime novel, Smyer’s debut Knucklehead does contain a whole lot of guns, violence, and rage, as well as plenty of love and sadness. A black lawyer in the late 80s through the mid-90s deals with micro and macro aggressions from a society determined to treat him as a criminal. Also, there are cats. Lots of cats.”
Literary Hub, Included in The Most Anticipated Crime, Mystery, and Thriller Titles of 2018

“Marcus is an intelligent, acerbic, and often hilarious narrator, bringing a fresh, biting perspective to the social and racial tensions of the time that, as debut novelist Smyer makes clear, are not particularly different from today.”
Library Journal

“Smyer’s debut explores themes of the self in chaos; the prose is clean as bone and the anger is focused and piercing.”
Michigan Quarterly Review

“While the provocative subject material will take readers to a sometimes-uncomfortable place, this brilliant debut is also deeply, darkly funny . . . This is one of those books that simply has to be discussed, as it managed to tackle difficult topics with unexpected humor and pathos. While Marcus is a troubled character, his journey and the choices he makes will provide rich meat for discussion about race in America and how justifiable anger can turn toxic.”
IndiePicks Magazine

“In this comic debut novel, lawyer Marcus Hayes careens through the racially divisive 1990s while trying to manage his compulsive anger, chaotic love life, and economic misfortunes . . . Smyer gives Marcus a sardonic and hilarious voice reminiscent of a Paul Beatty protagonist and endows him with a troubled psychology that plumbs the nuances of black male identity.”
Kirkus Reviews

“This book is bold in how it treats the reader as an insider to the reality of American blackness. It can be, in turns, lyrically poignant, cynical, hilarious, and infuriating.”
Foreword Reviews, STARRED review

“It’s a remarkable book. You should go in open-eyed and open-minded and see what happens.”
Lark Benobi (blog)

“From page one, Knucklehead is a literary punch in the face. Adam Smyer’s exploration of rage is unflinching, brave, and absolutely brilliant. There’s so much energy in this debut you could put it in your tank and drive on it.”
—Mat Johnson, author of Loving Day

“Adam Smyer is an incendiary new voice who announces himself with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. With refreshing honesty and rip-roaring, wipe-the-tears-from-your-eyes humor, Knucklehead prefigures our deranged times through the prism of the 1990s, forever debunking the illusory promise of that era by turning the mirror to our collective failures and deficiencies. A staggering, unforgettable debut.”
Arthur Nersesian, author of The Fuck-Up

“Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead is so smart, so wildly, uncategorizably original, such a flat-out revelation from page to page, you almost forget how savagely funny and fearless the author actually is. His prose calls to mind everyone from Fred Exley and Céline to Paul Beatty, Tao Lin, and a legion of other say-the-unsayable chroniclers of their own—and society’s—demons. Knucklehead is the kind of book you don’t just admire, it’s the kind that makes you want to buy in bulk and jam into the hands of loved ones and strangers as you scream in their faces, ‘Read this or remain clueless!‘ In a feat of fierce literary magic, the author’s 1990s Bay Area and NYC peel back the curtain on our own Trump-stained era, exposing, in loving detail, the fine line between salvation and self-destruction that defines the times. No one who reads Knucklehead will ever think the same about relationships, about family, about race, class, or the business of remaining sane—and human—in the world of crazy-making, soul-defiling choices we now inhabit. I straight-up loved this book.”
Jerry Stahl, author of Happy Mutant Baby Pills

“Decades from now, Adam Smyer’s Knucklehead will be discussed in the same way we talk about the great works of Wright, Baldwin, and Hurston. He invites the reader to view a remote corner of rage and somehow does it with a ruthless sense of humor worthy of Jonathan Swift.”
—James Tracy, coauthor of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power

“Reading Knucklehead, I found my eyes going unaccountably wet. Hats off to Mr. Smyer for writing the only book about being black today that I could stomach to read.”
—Eugene S. Robinson, author of Fight


In Knucklehead we meet Marcus Hayes, a black law student who struggles, sometimes unsuccessfully, with the impulse to confront everyday bad behavior with swift and antisocial action. The cause of this impulse is unknown to him.

When Marcus unexpectedly becomes involved with the brilliant and kind Amalia Stewart, her love and acceptance pacify his demons. But when his demons return, he is no longer inclined to contain them.

Included in Publishers Weekly’s African-American Interest Adult Titles, 2017-2018.

Read an interview with Adam Smyer at The Mercury News and The Literary Chick.

Listen to interviews with Adam Smyer on Radio Free Brooklyn’s Art Star Scene Radio and KAZI Book Review (Austin, TX).

Check out Adam Smyer’s recommended reading list of titles on “New York’s Gritty Past” at Electric Literature.

Read a guest piece by Adam Smyer at the Johannesburg Review of Books.

Listen to an interview with Adam Smyer at the Badass Bookworm:

Listen to a review of Knucklehead at Everything Went Black with Mike Hill:

Book Details

  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Published: 2/13/18
  • IBSN: 9781617755873
  • e-IBSN: 9781617756030


ADAM SMYER is an attorney, martial artist, and mediocre bass player. His nonfiction has appeared in the Johannesburg Review of Books, and his debut novel, Knucklehead, was the sole title short-listed for the 2018 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Smyer lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and cats. You Can Keep That to Yourself is his latest work.

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