I know about this author because she worked at bars and restaurants in my girlfriend’s college town. And so when her second novel came out this summer, we went to a reading. The second novel was pretty good. A little light, but otherwise interesting. I also really like sour, not super likeable narrators.
So this story, then, which is a richer novel in general, and has a sympathetic but considerably malcontent narrator works for me. In addition, since this is about teenage boy in a detention center, and since I work with teenagers, various of them having been in and out of foster homes and youth detention centers, I am set up to be a sympathetic reader, and I am.
It’s not a perfect novel, but I will get to that later.
As far as the descriptions of the life in a detention center, carved out into structured time and events, into 30 minute chunks, I get it. As a high school teacher, I think a lot about how overtly structured my students’ lives are in the school and how bizarre and constraining that is. I do NOT buy the argument that school is training for an office because, well it’s just not. Instead, it’s about a lack of imagination and cycles of action and reaction. We put students into an overly structured environment, and after time, especially in reaction to poor planning and wasted time and meaningless tasks, students react and react. So we tighten control, and as they react further and further the attitude gets more and more sour and hateful and stressed.
That is the world that Jacob Higgins lives in. His criminal acts in the real world were a reaction to violence and instability in his life. His life in the detention center, which is constraining, is simply a practice for an overly controlled world he already rejected. His observations of his world, his rejections of the actual philosophies behind it, and his searching for the little pleasures and emotional experiences of this world are small and sad.
The only complaint I have about the novel is that in a few moments I feel the author reacting, not the character. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it takes me out of the novel.