Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen

"Heaven laughs at me every day."

Jerk, California is a debut novel for Jonathan Friesen, and one of the books I read over my recent vacation. It was a great holiday read, with an interesting hook (a narrator with Tourette Syndrome), and a vacation-appropriate road trip plot. To me, this book had a really masculine feel--not in a "macho" sense, exactly, but in a more philosophical, "what makes one a man" sense, which I think is one of the interesting questions of our time. There is a strength to this book and to its protagonist Jack, and it is a pleasure to watch that strength unfold. Jerk, California is a quest story that digs deeper than the where-can-I-find-some-self-esteem journey that many teen books take us on. Jack's journey is about character.

Jerk, California tells the story of 17-year-old Sam Carrier, a young man with Tourette Syndrome who feels like, and is generally treated as, a freak. Sam, with his twitches and jerks and occasional bouts of spontaneous cursing (usually at the worst possible time) is incredibly self-conscious and pessimistic about himself in terms of relationships--any relationships, not just romantic ones. Sam's father James died in an accident when Sam was a baby, and his mother, perhaps the only person on earth who loves him, nevertheless fails to protect him from his nasty obsessive-compulsive stepfather Bill. Sam's self-loathing comes largely from Bill's and his classmates' jeering reactions to his Tourettes but also from the stories he has been told about his dead father, who, according to his stepfather, was a worthless, womanizing alcoholic who wouldn't even hold his infant son.

Everything begins to change for Sam the day he leaves home to work for George, a master gardener and his late father's best friend. George insists that Sam's real name is Jack Keegan (Bill had changed Jack's name when he entered their family--can you say "control freak"?) and he wants Jack to hear a different version of his family past. George dies, but before he does, he plans a road trip where Jack can meet some of his father's friends and finally his grandmother, who lives in Jerk, California. Jack takes the trip along with a young woman, Naomi, who has some tough problems of her own to work out and needs some thinking time.

I love how Friesen peopled his book with such strongly drawn and believable characters. Not just Jack, whose head we truly enter, but so many minor characters feel very real. Jack's stepfather is a horrid person who beats his wife and spews bile at Jack on a daily basis, but Jack carries around two childhood memories of this man's kindness to him, and these small memories help us, and Jack, see Bill in a more complex way. James turns out to have been a loving family man, a fact that proves tremendously healing for Jack. In fact, one of the few things I found difficult to accept in this book was how Jack's mother could have chosen two such opposite men to marry--James, with his kindness, strength, and principles, and Bill, with his petty mind and explosive temper. You'd think that her relationships with James would have made her quicker to blow the whistle on Old Bill. When she finally does leave, baby son in tow, Bill is finally seen as the real failure in terms of manhood. As Jack finally realizes, Bill is "all lies".

Jerk, California makes me want to read more Friesen. I'll be waiting in line for the next book.

No comments: