The author's first novel tracks the tragi-comic inner life of a troubled teenager in a juvenile-detention center.
With gifts for hyperacute observation and precise metaphor, Rathbone does a good job of capturing the texture of deadly institutional life as lived and voiced by Jacob Higgins, the 17-year-old son of an alcoholic mother with a taste for abusive partners. Moving around from Texas to Virginia, Jacob has spent his childhood dodging blows and running wild, his delinquency culminating in armed robbery. But Jacob’s inner world reveals his sensitivity as well as his despair and anger, all expressed in the sarcastic tones of a young man quick to spot weakness and falsity in those around him. Although successful in evoking the static gray tedium of Jacob’s daily round, Rathbone brings less invention to her cast of characters: the dysfunctional mother; the bland if kindly buddy/mentor; the risible or sadistic staff at the institution. Such plot momentum as there is derives from Jacob’s involvement with a female inmate, his heightened turmoil after his mother is beaten into a coma and his decision over whether, finally, to own a conscience. While the story follows a predictable arc, its mood of detached alienation has scarcely shifted by its conclusion.
A desultory existence and teenage perplexity are skewered in a tidily crafted, if slender novel, at times a caricature exercise in empathy.