By Crescent Dragonwagon
In Jack, A.M. Homes gives us a teenager who wants nothing more than to be normal—even if being normal means having divorced parents and a rather strange best friend. But when Jack's father takes him out in a rowboat on Lake Watchmayoyo and tells his son he's gay, nothing will ever be normal again. Out of Jack's struggle to redefine what "family" means, A.M. Homes crafts a novel of enormous humor, charm, and resonance, the most convincing, funny, and insightful novel about adolescence since The Catcher in the Rye.
Excerpt from Jack
"Be careful," my father said before I'd even taken my foot off of the brake.
"We don't have to do this," I said. "I can wait and get my license when I'm thirty—no problem. I can get Vernon, my driving teacher, to give me extra lessons."
"This time cut the wheel the other way before you ease up on the pedal."
I turned the steering wheel as far as I could. The old blue Volvo didn't believe in power steering.
"More," my father said.
I thought I was going to die. I thought I might have a heart attack. I thought if I ever had to drive that car, I'd end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"I think I'm having a heart attack," I said.
I saw him in the rearview mirror. I could see him in the mirror attached to the door. I turned my head around so I could look out the back window. He was standing there, leaning on one leg. His thumbs were hooked through the loops of his jeans. His hair was long and needed cutting. He stood there, not really looking like my father. He looked younger. He looked like a guy, just standing there, waiting. I stepped down on the gas, hard, and felt the car fly backward. I felt the steering wheel unwind in my hands. It was like the burn you get from flying a kite and letting out the string too fast.
My father jumped out of the way, his fingers unhooked from his belt loops. The wheels went up and over the curb. The rear bumper smashed into a tree, and then the car rolled a little bit forward, catching on the curb.
"Are you all right?" I yelled out the window.
"What did you do that for?" my father asked.
I shrugged. A car isn't a car, I thought to myself, it's a machine.
"It wasn't exactly planned," I said. "Should I try again?" He picked up the orange pylons and threw them into the trunk. Guess not, I thought.
"Why don't we call it a day," he said.
I wanted to drive. I wanted to keep going, forward. I wanted to break out onto the highway, put my foot to the floor, turn on the radio, and sing along.
"I can drive," I said. "I mean, I do have my learner's."
"I know," my father said. "But I can't teach you. I just can't," I slid across to the passenger side. My shirt stuck to the driver's seat, and then it pulled away with a soft sucking sound.
"Jack, don't get me wrong. I'm just not a teacher."
He pulled out onto the parkway. He didn't spin his head around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. He didn't look in all forty directions at once, the way Vernon said you should.
"Maybe we can try again in a couple of days," he said.
"It's just the parallel parking that seems to be a problem. We can work on it."
I pulled the visor down and looked at myself in the clip-on mirror.
My face floated, weightless, unmarked. The skin was clean and white, with freckles. My face floated, unlike my father's, which seemed thick and heavy, broken by the lines around his mouth and eyes.
"So, how's Mom?" he asked.
I nodded. It was his checklist. Every time we were together we went through this. He ran down his list of people, events, even actual objects that were in my life.
"The garden's doing real well, and I think Max is getting back to sort of normal."
I said it all at once to save him the trouble of having to hit on each thing, one at a time.
He smiled. "Good."
We were quiet.
"When you're ready, I want to take you to get your license."
"That's okay. Michael said he would. His car is smaller anyway."
I flipped the visor back up into the ceiling.
"I want to, Jack. Is that all right?"
He reached across the car, swept my hair off my face, and rubbed my cheek with the back of his hand. "Yeah, sure, we'll see," I said.
"How about dinner Wednesday?" he asked as he pulled up in front of our house.
"We'll go someplace nice, just you and me. Pick you up around seven."
"Yeah, okay. See you," I said as I got out.
He put the car in gear and pulled away without checking his mirrors. Luckily, nothing was coming. I worry about him. Sometimes I'm not sure his receiver is on the hook, if you know what I mean. I watched the blue Volvo creep down the street and wondered how I'd ever get it to fit in the goddamned parallel-parking place at the Motor Vehicle Administration.
"Salvation Army's coming tomorrow," Michael said when I walked into the kitchen. He was chopping vegetables with something that looked like the ax George Washington must have used when he cut down his cherry tree.
"Get whatever you don't want and put it out front."
I made myself a Muenster-cheese sandwich, with lettuce, tomato, mustard, and mayo, and went up to my room. Ingredients are important.
The entire top shelf of my closet was filled with stuff; historical artifacts of my entire life before this moment, old clothes, dead stuffed animals, notebooks, projects. It was all there, like I was saving it just in case for my sixteenth birthday the Smithsonian decided to do an exhibit on me. I pulled out crucial elements, things I would need in case I ever got amnesia and had to be reminded of who I was. The rest of it, all of it, I dumped into a huge box. I didn't even go through the stuff. Being one of those saver types, I knew if I stopped to look, to actually handle things, I'd be sitting on the floor of my room until I was thirty and the Salvation Army had come and gone, completely.
Just before I carried the box downstairs, I turned off the lamp on my desk, unplugged it, and stuffed it way down in the box, a little concerned because the bulb was still hot and I imagined it starting a fire that would be incredibly difficult to explain. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the lamp, but I unplugged that flashlight on a leash and shoved it right in there with the blue-and-green flannel shirt I wore every day during the winter of sixth grade and the Roy Rogers personally autographed cowboy hat someone bought me at a circus two hundred years ago. I realize it was slightly insane, but for the longest time I was convinced that the lamp was totally responsible for my family falling apart and my whole life getting wrecked. I know my life wasn't really wrecked, only slightly dented, and the lamp had nothing to do with it. All the same, I had the feeling that a part of me would never be all right until that lamp was gone. And I mean gone. I couldn't just put it in the basement or something. It had to go in a big way, hauled off by four guys with a Salvation Army truck. As far as I could tell, that particular lamp was in my room on the day I was born, because I have no memory of it arriving after me. But the night it left comes back like it was tattooed on my brain. I was maybe eleven years old, lying in bed wearing the fifty-percent-cotton-fifty-percent-polyester guaranteed-never-to-get-comfortable pajamas my grandmother had just sent me, and my father came in to say goodnight. He leaned against my desk and picked up the model airplane I'd spent all afternoon gluing.
Even in the wicked, disgusting sweats he put on every day after work, he looked like a movie star. It isn't the kind of stuff a kid normally says about his dad, but it was true; there was just something about him, a weird kind of confidence that made everyone turn around and look.
"Do you use this lamp?" he asked, turning the switch around and around like a maniac so the lamp kept flashing off and on, switching my room back and forth from night to day, like a special effect.
"I dunno, why?"
"I was thinking of using it in the other room."
"You have a lamp."
"I left it for Mommy. Can I borrow yours?"
"I guess," I said.
I guess, I said, like what am I, an idiot?
He moved into the other bedroom and then he moved out. One Saturday morning a couple of months after he borrowed the lamp, my father went to the grocery store. He got milk, orange juice, bread, all the regular things, and he got boxes. He put the food in the refrigerator and started packing. All his things from the bathroom cabinet went into the shoebox that my new loafers had come out of the week before. He even went through the big wicker hamper in the bathroom, picking out his dirty clothes and throwing them into one of those giant green trashbags along with all his clean stuff, like he didn't know what the hell he was doing. Before he left, he brought the lamp back into my room, put it down on the desk, and plugged it in.
"Are we going to the movie?" I said.
It wasn't what I wanted to say, but it was all that would come out. I was sitting at my desk gluing a tall ship.
"I have to move some stuff."
The mainmast came off in my hand and stayed glued to my thumb and first finger.
"I want to go to the movies."
To be honest, I didn't give a damn about the movie, but there was something horrible going on and I didn't know what it was and I didn't know what to do, except act normal.
We'd gone to the movies every week since I was about three.
"It's Saturday. We go to the movies on Saturday."
Normally I'm a movie freak. In fact, I am a movie. It's always me out there in a medium close-up. It's like there's a camera on me, trailing me, getting down every move. A long, slow, tracking shot of my life.
I pulled the mast off my fingers. It went back and forth, first sticking to my thumb and then to my other finger, and finally the balsa wood snapped, the glue started to dry and I managed to pull the mast off and follow my dad downstairs.
"I'm pretty well packed," my dad said when he walked into the kitchen.
My mother squeezed some Ivory soap into a dirty pot and turned on the water. "Jack wants to go to the movies. I thought I'd drop off the stuff and then take him." She rinsed the pot, put it down on the drainboard, and wiped her hands on a dish towel. My mother looked at my dad for a minute, then tilted her head back, ran her long skinny fingers through her long brown hair, and said, "You're not taking him anywhere, ever." She took a cigarette from her pocket and lit it. Smoke curled up and around her face.
"What?" my father said.
"I mean it, Paul." She took a big drag and started coughing.
"He wants to go to the movies," he said. "It's Saturday. We go to the movies on Saturdays."
I pressed my gluey fingers together and pulled them apart over and over again. They worked like magnets, sticking together and then snapping apart.
"I'll take him," she said.
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. The ash from her cigarette fell onto the floor. My dad looked down at it, but she pretended nothing had happened.
They stood there, staring at each other, swelling up the whole room. I remember the sudden strange sensation that these were not my parents, these were not the same people I'd known last week.
"You're acting extreme," my father said.
"Don't even begin to tell me how I'm acting," my mother said.
Everything looked the same, but during the night something from another planet, or maybe another house down the street, had come in and taken over my parents' bodies.
"Fine, fine," my father said, backing up until he was almost out the front door.
"No movie today, Jackie."
The stickiness had worn off, and my fingers were stiff with dried glue.
"Because I said so," my mother yelled.
Then she turned around and ran back through the house, out the kitchen door, and into the garden.
"I'm real sorry about this," my dad said, looking down at my untied shoelaces.
I shrugged. "It's just a movie."
"I have to leave," he said. "I'll call you later."
He went over and knocked on one of the dining room windows to get my mother's attention. I could see her standing in the garden, looking at the tomato plants.
"I'm going," my dad screamed through the glass.
His breath fogged up two panes. She didn't turn around. He hugged me and went out the front door, lugging the last two of the giant green trash bags. A lot of things went out the door that day. Things we didn't notice until later, like the hammer.
"I don't want to be one of those women who says horrible things about her husband, but your father had no right to take the hammer. I had that hammer when we were still dating, and he damn well knew it."
Until then, I'd never thought of anything as belonging to my mother or father. I'd always assumed that everything belonged to us as a group. I mean, we were supposed to be a family.
When you're a kid and you've got a father who reminds you of Superman, who seems like he can do anything, a father who's the kind of guy that climbs up onto the roof to rescue your dweebe G I Joe when it gets stuck up there during some idiotic experiment, and then one day he's gone, totally disappeared into a million green plastic garbage bags, no explanations offered, nothing anyone says later makes a bit of difference.
It's like you had a hero and all of the sudden he's all gone. He's gone but it isn't over because the whole thing, the whole way it happened, makes you start questioning everything and wondering about everything and your whole life turns into this mess that hurts incredibly and you constantly try and explain it to yourself and anyone who might listen.
One of the most disgusting parts of the whole mess was how right after my dad left he kept coming back. Not for keeps or anything. In fact, he never set foot in the house. But sometimes, out of nowhere, he would just appear in the backyard and start watering the plants.
Whenever my mom caught him, she would order me up to my room and start banging on the kitchen windows, yelling that when he left her it also meant he left the plants.
One afternoon, he pulled up with two other guys and a truckful of cement. They dug a deep hole in the dirt next to the driveway and started to sink the basketball pole we'd been talking about for three years. My mom shuffled out in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt that almost came down to her knees, a pair of jeans, and my dad's old red wool ski socks.
"What are you doing?" she said, lighting a cigarette.
Sometimes it seemed like my mother couldn't do anything without lighting a cigarette first.
"Putting in a hoop for Jack."
I stood in the front door, watching, knowing my mom would shoot me if I even thought of stepping outside, and praying that she wouldn't make him stop. My dad's two friends stopped shoveling.
"Do it, then leave," she said, dropping her cigarette into the fresh cement and grinding it out with my dad's red sock. She walked back toward the house, the cemented sock dragging slightly behind. She took the socks off at the door and threw them out into the middle of the front yard. As soon as she stepped inside, she turned around and ran barefoot back to where my dad and his friends were trying to straighten out the pole.
"Don't come back here again, all right. I don't want to see you in the front yard or the backyard or anywhere."
She yelled in his face while everyone watched. I felt like people from everywhere up and down the street, inside their houses, and maybe all the way to California could hear what was going on.
"It's my house, my garden. If the plants die, it's because I want them to. Got it?" She started to walk away, and my dad turned back to what he was doing. Then, all of a sudden, she grabbed him by the shirt.
"And don't keep pulling stunts like this, because next time I won't let you get away with it."
My dad didn't say anything. He looked past my mother at me standing in the doorway. He waved. She slapped his hand down, came back into the house, and slammed the door.
In the cold part of the night, while my mother was on the phone with Elaine Burka, her best friend, I went outside. I looked at the basketball hoop I'd always wanted, and threw my weight against the pole again and again until the soft cement gave a little and the pole was forever tilted slightly to the left.