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UNLAWFUL DISORDER by David Jackson  Ambrose


by David Jackson Ambrose

Pub Date: May 31st, 2022
ISBN: 978-1-938841-97-2
Publisher: Jaded Ibis Press

In Ambrose’s novel, a Black gay man with bipolar disorder navigates a mental health system and financial troubles.

One day in 2010, in Norristown, Pennsylvania,Bowie Long, still dressed in his pajamas, went to visit his mother at work at the county administration building with the intention of asking her for his check from Social Security; then, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, he tried to kill her. Now he’s in a state mental facility, where he’s never been before:“The state hospital was the place of last resort. The place for the true loons. Or those that didn’t have insurance to pay for anything else. There were no perks here.” The 32-year-old Bowie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder years ago and has long heard voices in his head. He’s soon let out of the hospital, but this just puts him back into his chaotic home life. He and his mother, Magdelene—who quickly forgives him for trying to murder her—are both gambling addicts, and often spending their scant money on the slots at the local casino. Bowie isn’t above doing sex work here and there to make a couple extra bucks, as well. At home, though, his mother berates him constantly and makes him uncomfortable by frequently being naked in his presence. The only bright spot in his life is his sometime-lover, Eden, a compassionate man who desperately tries to save Bowie from bad choices. As Bowie navigates the mental health and legal systems during one crisis after another, Eden attempts to help him deal with a childhood trauma that might be contributing to his problems—but, Bowie wonders, is he simply too far gone to ever lead a normal life?

Over the course of this novel, Ambrose shows himself to be a terrific writer on the sentence level, capturing Bowie’s claustrophobic, paranoid existence in a way that will keep readers on their toes, as when Bowie rages against his keepers at the state hospital: “After the tenth hour, he did what it seemed they had been waiting for. He leaped up, screaming, and threw a chair. They descended like night, pinioning him beneath their weight, ignoring his outbursts, his demands to go home.” Bowie is a memorable protagonist, and Ambrose elegantly brings this sympathetic and deeply troubled man to life. Magdalene is a brilliant villain, whom the author portrays as just as psychologically complex as her son. The novel is a bit too long at nearly 400 pages, as the ups and downs become a bit repetitive over the course of the work. However, it remains a breathless read, effectively capturing the messiness of mental health and the maddening bureaucracy of the system in place to treat mental illness. It also demonstrates how traumas and living conditions can exacerbate one another, keeping a person trapped in a cycle of ill health and poverty. Overall, it’s a story that truly fixes the reader in the chaos of another person’s mind.

A startling and rewarding story of pain and alienation.