“Then the dean's laughter died down. He had stopped in his tracks. He was staring at Titus. Service. And he continued looking at Titus and Titus was nodding slowly. You know what I mean when I say that? Yeah devoting your life to others—Not just others. Ideas too.”
The consequences of this incident are that Titus is under constant scrutiny. His greatest institutional support, Dean Daniels, is spread thin among the entire Black student body. But when Titus slips up, UVA brings all its resources to bear on punishing him for his mistakes, pointing at his past as proof that he does not deserve a better future.
And this is where we start to see the complication to Dean Daniels's advice. Maybe he's right, maybe a life should be spent serving ideas, but who do those ideas belong to? Throughout the novel Titus wrestles with expectations – his own, the dean's, his family's, his friend's, and those of his sometimes-girlfriend Brooke. Everyone has their own ideas of who he should be, but none of them sit comfortably on Titus's shoulders.
This conflict erupts early on when Titus starts applying to law school. Initially he thinks his past will make a great hook for his application essay, casting himself as a reformed offender now eager to serve his community. "From behind bars to joining the bar," as Dean Daniels puts it. In fact, Daniels likes this narrative so well that he makes it the crux of his own recommendation letter for Titus.
But at the moment of truth, when Titus finally applies, he has second thoughts. Is this really how he wants to be known? Does he want his life story to center on his biggest fuck up? Titus decides that no, actually, he doesn't. When the law school applications ask if he's ever been charged with a crime, Titus checks the box "No." He also declines to send Dean Daniels's recommendation. In making this choice, Titus tries to assert himself on his grades and test scores alone, just like any other UVA student. Yet this lie about his past will come back to haunt him.
Each of this novel's central characters faces this same dilemma of whose idea to serve. There's Vonny, Titus's best friend who waffles between finishing school and jumping into the workforce. There's Brooke, who is asked by a white classmate to use her race as leverage to launch their nonprofit. And then there's Joe, traumatized and haunted by his brother's murder and desperate to find some relief. None of them are given the support they most urgently need, and all face brutal consequences for asserting themselves as anything other than who they're expected to be.
When the pressure becomes too severe, Titus and Vonny turn to the usual vices of a twenty-something college student – alcohol, weed, gaming, and porn. But they also turn to each other, and some of the novel's most tender moments spring from the way their friendship allows them to let down their guard:
“Titus laughed to himself, somehow unconvinced by anything Vonny had said just now but none of that seemed to matter anymore. He was in a good mood. He walked over to Vonny and handed him the bottle he'd just polished off. In my opinion you look even gayer with the short hair, and tried to mush him in the side of the head but Vonny preemptively mushed him first. So it's like that now huh? And they were both giggling with their dukes up, and they stayed up for a few more hours talking, just talking, so happy and relieved just talking and having someone there who could understand.”The novel is not without controversy. Although centered on Black students at the University of Virginia, the author, Alberto Gullaba, Jr., is of Filipino descent. According to Gullaba, this was not something he ever tried to hide, but upon discovering his race Gullaba's agent asked him to rewrite the book from the perspective of a Filipino side character. Gullaba ultimately declined, self-publishing the novel pseudonymously as “Free Chef.”
If not for that backstory and the Twitter conversations that followed, I might not have heard of this book, or been curious enough to read it. It's also true that the questions at the heart of the controversy have made it fodder for people pushing other agendas. Whether any of that is good or bad for Gullaba, I have no idea, but I don't think it's fair to judge him or the book by the conversation around it.
What I can say is that this is a powerful, challenging novel with no easy answers. Gullaba writes with incredible sympathy for his characters and their struggle to forge their own futures. The result is a funny, tragic, rough-and-tumble novel that asks not just whose ideas and expectations these characters serve, but if there can be any hope for escape.