Wetta has written that rare novel that can truly be called a “crossover,” in the sense that it speaks to adults just as it speaks to teens. It raises questions that are not really resolved, and speaks to the nature of fiction itself. If we change just one thing in one’s life, does that make all the rest a fiction?
Jack presents us with two alternate histories: one in which his brother is transgresser, and one in which his brother is transgressed upon. In the first history, his father is a rough and a cad, while in the second, he is vulnerable yet protective of his sons. The fact that alternative histories are presented tells us something about Jack’s ambivalence, though one of the histories lay on the cutting room floor at the end of the novel.
I remember those days of childhood when one begins to perceive the outlines of “truth;” when another person’s truth is not precisely as we ourselves have observed it to be. We begin to suspect those others; we begin to suspect ourselves.
This is a book, I guess, about love. But it seems more a book about a family (“Families live on loyalty more than love…”), or perhaps just a young boy: a young boy just discerning the truth about people, about his family, about his neighborhood, about black people and Jewish people, about policemen and villains.
It is a story of a stiff-spined boy who grew into a stiff-spined man. He claims to have had a brother and father who taught him forgiveness could be weakness. He was saved by his mother, a kind woman, though she recognized some failing in him: “You’ll be a lot harder than your father or brother ever were. You’ll never do anything wrong, not you. But my God you’re going to be hard.” Jack may have thought that was a good thing—a carapace of steel should save him from the vagaries of love and loyalty.
Jack Witcher begins his story when he is thirteen and “already tragic.” Exceptionally imaginative, he has a hard time sorting truth from fiction, and creates an alternate universe in which the haunting experience of finding a corpse in the woods merges with the perfectly normal wish for an older brother to get his come-uppance and his parents’ divorce to be explained. “Maybe I might have killed him.” Jack is uncertain exactly how to deal with an unruly older brother, but one thing is clear. He’ll create a story in which that brother is dealt with severely. How much is truth and how much is fiction? That is where we will differ.
Sometimes when I am confused about something, my head feels filled with white noise; Jack’s confusion produces a cacophony and Wetta captures the mind-buzz perfectly:
”I started thinking about the hot shack and the pissy mattress and the cicadas. I saw myself lying in all that stink with a knife in my chest. Meanwhile the gnats and the mosquitoes and the bees and the flies and the wasps kept buzzing. Add to that the airplanes and the jet fighters leaving vapor trails and the helicopters and the lawn mowers on Lewis Street and the vacuum cleaners and the other appliances and the fans and the air conditioners and the traffic north on Cherokee and the traffic south on Matson and the trains on the tracks beside the river and the chemical and pharmaceutical plants next to the interstate pumping pollution into the air and the barking of neighborhood dogs and the frogs croaking along the banks of the creek and the snapping and buzzing from the satellites circling the earth and the cicadas in my mind that never stopped singing." (p. 298)
This may be a good book to carry on the family vacation this summer. It has clever observances that make us laugh out loud, it raises social issues, and it plays with our sense of reality. It might make for good conversation around the campfire, on the lake, or at the dinner table.
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