A talented young runner escapes a turbulent childhood only to face even bigger challenges in this debut novel.
With an abusive father, Wes Strong grows up living in a state of undeserved criticism and fear. A hardworking student who just wants to make his father proud, Wes asks earnestly in prayer “What have I done, God? What am I doing wrong?” Even though he never does anything wrong, his father’s abuse is merely the first, and least awful, of the horrors awaiting him. He briefly finds an outlet for frustration on the running team, even achieving a scholarship to a nearby university. But as he relishes escaping his father, his indulgence in his first and only beer quickly snowballs into a sudden pain pill addiction and a drug deal that ends with the murder of a policeman, landing Wes in prison for six years. To top it all off, his mother dies in a car wreck around the same time. Despite all this adversity, Wes carries on and tries to avoid the two leading rival gangs at his new home in prison: the “boys” and the “freaks.” But, poster boy for Murphy’s Law that he is, Wes soon becomes a target for rape by the “boys” and seeks refuge with their enemies, discovering that they truly are freaks: “Jesus Freaks.” Wes builds a relationship with God that seems to reverse his bad luck. In telling Wes’ tale, Smith makes it difficult for a reader to take the protagonist’s “redemption” seriously. Most of the characters are two-dimensional, either completely monstrous or saintly, and Wes’ wrong place, wrong time “crime” is much less intriguing than a true dark side. The author excels in small, contained scenes, especially Wes’ races, which are taut, suspenseful, and compulsively readable. But Smith never decides how best to approach Wes, sometimes narrating from his first-person perspective and sometimes describing him at a distance like a documentarian. The result is a disjointed character who never earns the sympathy he truly deserves.
A redemption story, with some satisfying suspense and triumph, that delivers too much unbelievable tragedy for such a fragmented central character.