JERKWATER by Jamie  Zerndt


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In Zerndt’s (The Roadrunner Cafe, 2016, etc.) literary novel, three lost souls cling together in an angry Wisconsin town.

Orphaned Shawna Reynolds, who is Ojibwa, is a few years out of high school and desperate to get out of her hometown of Mercer, Wisconsin. She resents most white people, who’ve exhibited no shortage of racism. “The poor kid didn’t stand a chance,” thinks Shawna as she watches a young white boy fish with his father. “Whether he wanted to be or not, he was a racist-in-training. Half the kid’s heart was probably already polluted, and by the time he reached high school, his insides would be entirely black.” She gets on okay with her next-door neighbor, Kay O’Brien, at least. Kay is mourning her recently deceased husband and worrying about her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She mostly worries about what will happen to her son, who doesn’t yet know about the disease. That son, Douglas O’Brien, is doing his best to keep the family auto repair shop from going under, feeling responsible for the death of his father, hanging out with Shawna, and making drawings that nobody ever sees in his sketchbook. The three form a moody family unit of sorts, attempting to protect one another from the rest of the world, but when a local dispute over fishing rights turns into a larger conflict about race, the wounds that each of them has been nursing threaten to rupture. Zerndt’s prose is smooth and matter-of-fact: “As they waited at a stoplight in town, Shawna found herself staring at a fire hydrant. It resembled a little girl in a red coat, and, for some reason, this little girl looked to Shawna like she was about to jump off the sidewalk into traffic.” Kay and Douglas are compelling characters, but Shawna steals the show with her frank declarations and hard-bitten worldview. Engaging from the first chapter, the trio propels the reader through a meandering plot that neither shies away from timely issues nor drifts too far into despair. By the end of it, the reader is left with that wonderful sense of having truly been somewhere else for a little while.

A moving, character-driven tale of the limits of bitterness and regret.

Pub Date: June 16th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-07-284247-7
Page count: 244pp
Publisher: Self
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2019


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