TBTS Reviews: If Jack’s In Love
I’ve gotten used to seeing author bios that run this way: Writer McAuthor is a graduate of (reasonably prestigious school) and (notable MFA program.) He is from (rural state) and now lives in New York, where he is a frequent contributor to (painfully hip journal). And that’s it, the sum total, everything worth mentioning. It’s almost not worth looking anymore. In this day and age where everything has seemingly been done and all a writer can offer is perspective, it seems so many are looking at life from the same vantage. But once in a while, I come across something like this:
A high school dropout, Stephen Wetta grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, drank, used drugs, got in financial trouble, and spent far too much time reading and writing. He knocked around for years at different jobs, didn’t like any of them, and got sober without wanting to. Somehow he wound up with a Ph.D. and worked for ten years as an adjunct. His academic career was singularly undistinguished, and he was eventually hired full-time by a school that couldn’t get rid of him. Shortly afterward he was jailed for tax evasion. If Jack’s in Love is his first novel.
Based on that and the fact that the jacket photo makes the author look like Tom Waits playing Doctor Who, I gave If Jack’s in Love a chance. I fell hard for it. I’m perhaps a little bit biased in favor of late-blooming writers having a go at a second career – Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill (Crimes in Southern Indiana, review forthcoming), and now this guy, but the merits of the book are substantial and solid.
If Jack’s in Love is set in Virginia in 1967, where twelve-year-old Jack Witcher has far too much on his mind. His father is a thuggish hillbilly who challenges grown men to fights. His mother is a sweet but homely woman – her own son describes her as having a face that belongs in a documentary about the Dust Bowl. His brother, Stan, might smoke pot and have long hair, but is far, far too violent to be a hippie. Everyone in town hates the Witchers, and the Witchers have traditionally been all too happy to give them cause. But poor Jack had the misfortune to be born smart, much smarter than his father and brother – he is, unthinkably, a Witcher with potential. Worse still, Jack is in love as only a boy of twelve can be, with Myra Joyner, the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential men in town and a natural enemy of the Witcher clan. And if that wasn’t enough, Stan and Myra’s older brother Gaylord are bitter foes on a course that threatens to be their mutual undoing.
Wetta brings all this to life in an easy, winning, conversational style. He isn’t flashy, but he isn’t sentimental either; this is no nostalgia piece, no buttery reminiscence presented in Thomas Kinkade-style hypersaturated color. If Jack’s in Love feels true, enough that you wonder whether it isn’t semi-autobiographical (it isn’t, according to the afterword.) Jack is an honest enough narrator to bring out that he sometimes treasures memories he shouldn’t – it’s hard to miss that even though he should thoroughly resent his lot in life, he loves his family and feels a deep loyalty to them, even if it’s flavored with disappointment. Wetta loves to jump out of the well-worn grooves:
The war against the Witchers began to escalate about that time. I remember when the war was still cold, when all we had to deal with was the snootiness of our neighbors. Oddly enough, Pop was more trouble then. He gambled, he drank, and perhaps he ran with women. I wasn’t positive on the last score, I only knew what Mom and Stan had hinted at. The legendary days of Pop’s life of sin belonged to my insensate years, when I was small and assumed all was well in the world. I did have shadowy memories of Pop being drunk, but I loved those memories. Pop was fun when he was drunk.
To me, that’s far more effective – and far more honest – than yet another woe-is-me story about surviving a parent’s alcoholism. Never slow, If Jack’s in Love quickly turns into a fast-paced, suspenseful story about an event whose consequences leave no one untouched. Wetta captures so much in this story – love, loyalty, family and the tumult of the Sixties – that one leaves the book with deep satisfaction and a desire to find out what he’ll do next. For my part, I can’t wait to find out.