Soul music acts as a lifeline for a tormented adolescent whose family is disintegrating.
Three things about this very short novel hit you immediately. The first is the voice of the narrator, 14-year-old Joel Junior; the second is the invocation of America’s rhythm-and-blues singers; and the third is the terrible plight of Joel and his little brothers, Carter and Tank. For his fifth work of fiction, Parker (Towns Without Rivers, 2001, etc.) takes us back to Trent, North Carolina. Joel’s daddy is not right in the head. When he’s having one of his spells, he hears voices; he has destroyed the TV with his golf clubs, though he hasn’t (yet) laid a hand on his kids. Joel’s mama was the first to jump ship, followed by her firstborn, Angela. Now Joel is father and mother to both his kid brothers. He expresses perfectly his lost Southern self, as he tries to make sense of the inexplicable. What sustains this beaten-down white boy is his love of the great black soul singers, a taste he has inherited from his father, who has just broken down again. Fearing the worst, Joel bundles his brothers into the pickup, but Carter gets loose; their daddy ties him up and cuts his hair, snipping off an earlobe. Joel has seen enough; he drives Tank and himself to the coastal town where Angela is waiting tables, but she’s a tough cookie and disinclined to help. After failing to track down their mother, Joel and Tank return home to a catastrophe. That’s not much storyline in a novel that is all about love: love promised, love withheld, love struggling against the odds.
Parker does a fine job exploring Joel’s pain, but the overworked music/love connection is not enough to give his story ballast.