A teenager battles alienation in his cloistered Polish neighborhood in this sequel.
In the 1950s, a quietly pensive 13-year-old named Jim lives in a working-class neighborhood in southwest Detroit, a homogenously Polish enclave still suffocated by Old World Roman Catholicism and an antiquated peasant ethos. Jim is inducted into a street gang called the Royal Lancers—his initiation required some petty larceny as a show of courage—but he’s small, lacks confidence, and is terrorized by Donny, a senior-ranking member infamous for his brutality. Jim attends the University of Detroit High School, an aspirationally named institution run by minor Jesuit despots; his Latin teacher tortures his pupils with his “priggish preciousness.” Jim feels oppressed by the hypocrisy of the religion that haunts his life—he disdains the “pompous piety” of his cruel grandmother—and slowly moves in the direction of a “defection” from it. He’s equally pulverized by the laconic disapproval of his father and the unexpressed sadness of his mother, and seems to have joined the Royal Lancers just to have a place other than home to spend time. He becomes deeply infatuated with a girl, Rachel Levin, and his pursuit of her eventually draws him toward a violent confrontation that compels him to interrogate the anti-Semitism seared into his religion’s provincial worldview. This is the second installment of Sniechowski’s (Worship of Hollow Gods, 2014) Leaving Home Trilogy, and while there is a narrative continuity between the two novels, the first needn’t be read in order to enjoy its sequel. The writing is poetically philosophical and infused with moral gravity, although it occasionally flirts with lesson-driven didacticism: “We were all of the same stock. Humanity. And the prejudice that was part of the foundation of my family, neighborhood, church, and religion, was not merely wrong, it was weak, bloated, a defilement of both the Jews and the Slavs.” Jim’s character is deeply drawn, with his emotional turmoil cleverly captured by his inner voice that sometimes encourages and sometimes tauntingly cajoles. The author is especially talented at depicting the paradoxical mix of frustration and exhilaration that marks adolescence.
A thoughtful, meditative tale about the pain of youthful disillusionment.