By Chet Yarbrough
By: Joan Silber
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Adenrele Ojo, Hilliary Huber, Ramiz Monsef, Kate Reading, R.C. Bray
“Improvement” is a compilation of characters in the formative years of their early adult lives.
The primary character is Reyna who lives in Harlem, New York. It is a story of her life and the lives of several who are in that age group. All characters in the novel are directly or indirectly connected to Reyna. None are “movers and shakers” of the world, but each represent what life is like for many young adults in the 21st century.
Reyna is a single mother with a young son named Oliver, and a boyfriend who is not the son’s father.
The boyfriend, Boyd, is serving time in prison for drug possession. Her attachment to Boyd comes from personal attraction but is cemented by Boyd’s attention to her son. The four-year-old idolizes Boyd.
Boyd also lives in Harlem. Reyna is white. Boyd is black. They are both living on the edge of poverty. Reyna is a secretary at a veterinary clinic.
Cigarette Smuggling in New York
After being released from prison, Boyd and friends decide to become smugglers by buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them in New York.
The cigarette tax difference between States goes into the pockets of smugglers. If caught, they are fined and put in jail. This illegal activity, either directly or indirectly, sets events in motion that affect all the characters in Silber’s story.
Reyna initially agrees but at the last moment decides she cannot make the trip because of her responsibility as a parent. She fears being arrested and having her son taken from her. Claude, one of the smugglers, says he will drive even though he has little experience driving, and no experience driving a truck. Claude also has no driver’s license.
On the trip to Virginia, the truck is t-boned by a commercial truck driver. Claude is killed, others are permanently injured.
The result of the accident is to reveal more information about everyone in the accident and people who are affected by the death of Claude. Claude had found a girlfriend in Virginia. She knows nothing of the accident and wonders why Claude has not contacted her. Claude’s sister is heartbroken by his death.
Claude’s girlfriend meets someone else to replace her affection for Claude. Reyna feels guilty for Claude’s death. Boyd breaks up with Reyna. Reyna’s son misses Boyd. The commercial driver becomes deeply in debt to repair his truck. The consequence of the accident reaches into the details of many lives. Claude’s sister leaves Harlem with money she unknowingly received from Reyna who feels guilty for Claude’s death. Claude’s sister starts her own business in Philadelphia.
This is a story of people at the bottom of America’s economic ladder but what is true for the poor is true for all humanity. Everyone’s life is affected by what happens to others.
Empathy will not cure the ills of society, but knowledge of life’s interconnection offers hope for life’s “Improvement”. Silber shows how all human actions have consequence. One cannot predict the consequence of one’s actions, but Silber implies moral actions offer a chance for human “Improvement”.