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by J.R. Helton

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 2014
ISBN: 9781609805838
Publisher: Seven Stories

An angry adolescent boy recounts his life in a teenage wasteland, suffering under the thumb of his incompetent and violent father.

It would seem like this stark, southwestern-set family history by Helton (Drugs, 2012, etc.) is meant to be a redemptive story about a father and son—perhaps something along the lines of Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini but written in real time by a frightened and angry son instead of the broken adult that comes of such events. Unfortunately for a novel that spends so much time roaming the vast wastelands of America, the story never really goes anywhere. As in his previous novels, the author affects an amalgam of Bukowski-like gruff and the casual but absurdist styles of storytellers like the late Harvey Pekar and Pekar’s friend Robert Crumb, who contributes the brutish cover illustration here. The story follows Jake Stewart, a promising young artist and illustrator, from the age of about 6 until he graduates from high school. His father is a well-read but also loud and violent lout, conspiracy theorist and UFO nut whose get-rich-quick schemes constantly threaten to derail his family’s well-being and throw his children’s lives into turmoil. Jake has a sister, Cindy, but she’s a ghost in the story, barely existing around the periphery to ignite arguments with her brother and suffer the indignities thrust upon her by her father. Helton uses the ordinary events of an American boyhood, ranging from numerous moves to sports contests to Boy Scout outings to family vacations, to paint a picture of the father as a know-it-all bully. His actions inspire few consequences but Jake’s rage—during one particularly vicious schoolyard tussle, Jake observes, “[h]e was bigger than me, but he wasn’t as angry.” The prose is smooth, but the novel’s resolution, or lack thereof, rings false.

A pedestrian retelling of what it’s like to be the son of a jerk.