Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: Jack

In Jack,, A.M. Homes has accomplished the difficult task of writing a novel from the point of view of a child, and making the ensuing story interesting for adults. The difficulty here is in voice and content. Replicating the cadence and language of children challenges writers wanting to appeal to adults who quickly tire of the repetition indicative of teenage speech. As for content, while teenagers find their own lives endlessly fascinating, (most) adults have little patience for tepid romance or gossip. What separates a literary work written in a child's perspective from a young adult novel is the author's ability to create a child character who is appealing, interesting, and maybe a bit precocious. A.M. Homes has done that here.

Jack is a typical high school boy, looking forward to his sixteenth birthday and getting his driver's license. He's not popular, but he's not unpopular; the other kids in his class seem to largely ignore him. Scintillating, right? Add to all of that Jack's parents' contentious divorce and his father's subsequent coming out and admission that he and his friend Bob are lovers. While Jack struggles with this new information, his best friend Max (so incredibly obnoxious it's hard to imagine he and Jack staying friends past high school) has a family that's exploding as well. Jack has his first girlfriend, a huge failure, and rebounds with another girl who understands him. He develops a crush on a much older woman. And he needs to wear a cast following a basketball injury. Jack has a lot going on.

What elevates this book from YA to literary fiction is the way Jack sorts through his emotions and makes decisions. Homes shows his struggle at times to do the right thing, and other times when he easily knows the right path and chooses it not because he wants to, but because he's a good kid. He's also acutely observant. When he and Max wind up out on the town with a popular girl from their class, along with his dad and her dad (also gay), he senses trouble on the horizon and tries to head it off. This being an adult novel though, devoid of lessons for budding teens to learn, things go exactly the way one would expect them to in real life. When Jack's secret is revealed, the interest lies not in the way other people react to it, but the way Jack reacts to a world where he no longer has the secret.

Homes gives Jack a mature mindset in many areas, belied by the occasional childish lapse. For instance, his kindness to Max's little brother and innate understanding of what the boy needs contrasted with his stubborn insistence that he doesn't need a doctor after sustaining an injury during a game. The moments of immaturity make Jack a believable kid, while the moments of clarity make him interesting. Jack's moment of epiphany at the end is a simple one, but weighs heavily, reminding the reader of their own moment of understanding. The events that occur around Jack are interesting, in typical Homes style the reader should expect the unexpected, but it's Jack himself who carries the book. Other authors have successfully written books from a child's perspective (Sapphire's Precious in Push and C.D. Payne's Nick Twisp in Youth in Revolt come to mind), but most of those children face extraordinary circumstances. Jack's life is unusual, but it's not ground-breaking. It's what happens in Jack's mind that's most interesting.

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