Adversarial suitors with their perfect hair, Adonis-like physiques, and fawning social circles are reminders of how good you aren't and how you'll never end up with the one you love. If that impeccable hero were eliminated from the equation, would you finally be able stake your amorous claim? In Rene S. Perez II’s Seeing Off the Johns, high school senior Concepcion “Chon” Gonzalez gets that opportunity. The one girl he’s ever fanatically loved in his short life, Araceli Monsevais, is tragically single after the accidental deaths of her small-town hero boyfriend and his best friend (the eponymous Johns). It’s not exactly an ideal opportunity but an opportunity to woo the town beauty nonetheless.
Chon was once an adolescent at the top of his game in the tiny Texas town of Greenton. Then puberty and all of its acne and bodily awkwardness knocked him down a few social pegs, stripping him of girlfriend Araceli in the process. When the Johns die, Chon (albeit with intermittent bouts of guilt) sees the chance to gain Araceli back. The town, however, sees a devastating loss of more than the two young lives.
“I didn’t think that Chon’s story was enough,” says Perez. “That was never my real focus of the novel. I wanted to tell the story of the town.”
The town is in love with the Johns. The duo are baseball legends in Greenton with scholarships to the University of Texas and a bright future of legendary success. Though their likely fame should put Greenton on the map, it’s all still a big maybe, a maybe that becomes a never when the Johns are killed in a car wreck. “I would think that it would be like losing a big hand of poker and seeing those chips taken away from you," says Perez. "What they mourn is that they couldn’t see it play out.”
South Texas is the backdrop for Chon’s romantic mission and the tragedy of the Johns. Perez delivers such a tangible representation of the Texas heat, dirt, and wide expanses with genuine flavor that’s so, well, Texan, it’s enough to make an honorary Yankee homesick for the Lone Star state. I ask him if his story of tragedy, lost love, and hope for escape is a love letter to the 28th state.
“That’s hard to answer because it’s kind of like all of my writing is without necessarily trying to be,” says Perez. “The whole thing pretty much is a love letter to my father’s hometown more specifically than Texas.” Perez’s father hails from Hebbronville, a Texas town with a population of about 5,000. Greenton is fictional, in name at least. “Every part of [Greenton] is geographically Hebbronville,” says Perez.
Even surrounded by vast plains and open roads, Greenton is still restrictive. The desperation to escape a small-town trap is a universal sentiment; Chon certainly feels it, not wanting to be stuck and stifled. His motivation to get the girl is eventually paired with the goal to get the hell out. “It’s definitely empowering to leave [a small town],” Perez says, adding that it’s more empowering to realize how a small town shapes a person. “I think it’s a sign of maturity.” Empowerment is a gust of encouragement but maturity comes when your feet are finally planted elsewhere. “You realize, ‘Holy hell, that place shaped me. That’s who I am. I love that place.’ ”
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is at work on his own picture book and teen novel.