By Crescent Dragonwagon
The engaging, doggedly lunny 15-year-old protagonist of Jack is alive, living in the suburbs and not doing too well. Wisecracking his way along, in the first-person narrative of this novel for young adults. Jack treats his screaming vulnerability in the time-honored Holden Caulfield manner of teenagers in American fiction. This exaggeration, excess and humor are done well, but they have been done so many times that they often pale.
Jack is a likable guy, a good kid caught in circumstances too much for him. And in the particulars of those circumstances, rather than in the style per se A.M. Homes touches upon something unique.
Still in mourning for the end of his parents' marriage, Jack lives with his mother, who is living with a pleasant, spacey refugee from the 1960's who drinks just a little too much. And his father is living in an apartment complex with a roommate, Bob. Then one day Jack's father rows Jack out to the middle of a lake, "out there in the middle of nothing," and informs him that Bob, his roommate, is actually his lover. With that, the world Jack's been trying to reconstruct collapses.
What's their relationship supposed to be like now, Jack wonders, veering between rage and helplessness as he plays basketball and contends with driving lessons? Why has he been the last to know his father is gay? His mother knew, the schoolmates who scrawled "FAGGOT" on his locker knew. And how should he treat this knowledge? His obnoxious and unbalanced friend Max Burka is less than helpful. And although Jack does manage to forge an alliance, to his own surprise, with the popular Maggie Rogers (whose father, it turns out, is also gay), that relationship is not strong enough to carry him through these rapids.
The most stable adults in Jack's life seem to be his friend Max's parents, particularly Max's mother, Elaine Burka, on whom Jack has a semi-crush. But a weekend in the country with the Burkas shows Jack that the family he has idealized also has problems—in fact, far more serious problems than those in his family. Seeing Mrs. Burka with "the whole right side of her face... kind of purplish red and puffy, like raw meat or eggplant," thanks to a beating by Max's father, shocks him into considering indirectly whether perhaps, there are worse things than having a gay father. And he finally realizes, out playing basketball alone late one night, that despite all the changes he is still "plain Jack, no strings attached," but he is also "moving, dancing down the court," thinking "I was playing, I was Fast Jack." He knows, as does the reader, that he will "be okay, permanently," he will "make it."
Ms. Homes handles the big subjects and adolescent passions subtly, deftly and with an appealing lack of melodrama, growing overwrought only when Jack himself naturally would. Even the minor characters have dimension and draw our sympathy, as does Jack himself, who is likable from the first paragraph. If Jack is at times imitative, it still has much to recommend it. Without pat answers, A.M. Homes has given us, a good youngster who in the end convincingly grows larger than his circumstances—as all of us, good and otherwise, must do on that arduous journey to adulthood.