Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review: Defending Jacob

In one of John Gardner’s great books on writing fiction, he makes the claim that while nobody really knows whether or not we human beings have free will, whether we can choose the course for our lives or whether our choices are somehow manifest for us, it’s death to fiction to assert that we don’t have free will, that somehow a story’s characters are pay inescapable homage to some oppressive power infinitely greater than themselves.

Determinism simply doesn’t work in fiction, in story, because, Gardner says, dang it, no human being really wants to believe that he or she is not in control of at least some aspects of our lives.

What animates Defending Jacob, William Landay’s courtroom drama (2012), is what feels for all the world like a species of determinism that finally undermined any interest I had in the characters and therefore the whole trajectory of the plot. I kept on trucking only because I wanted to know where Landay would take the story and its sorry characters.

The truth is, I listened to Defending Jacob, didn’t read it. Even though I’ve been an Audible member for years and have dozens of books in my audio-library, Defending Jacob was a first for me because I kept telling myself that whoever produced the recording stumbled when choosing the actor. Had the voice conveyed an ounce of feeling, the story might have moved me. But he didn’t, and it didn’t.

It would be difficult to out-chill the actor that read Defending Jacob, the voice who plays the narrator of the story, Jacob’s father, a public defender who is as incapable of thinking through his son’s dilemma as he is understanding his only child. Just a few twists of voice now and then could have made the narrator human and lent great strength to the novel’s complexity. Instead, the steady cynical monotone, despite his and his son’s predicament, creates a tone that I found, at times, almost inhuman.

The story surrounds the behavior of Jacob, a 15-year-old boy who is accused of the murder of another boy who’d made his life miserable as a bully. The great question, however, the one only minimally approached in the novel but present in upper case throughout, is whether or not young Jacob somehow inherited a predilection for murder from the hardened criminals in his father’s side of the family. Is he, by nature, a killer? That’s the question that underlies everything.

It’s never answered theoretically, but the story goes in a direction that makes Landay’s theorizing very pointed.

There’s an old line about Thomas Hardy that I’ve always liked, even though I loved some of his work. In Hardy’s novels, people say, things just get worse and worse and worse and worse, and then they’re over. I’m not interested in spoiling anyone’s reading, but by the time my iPod ran out of content in Landay’s Defending Jacob, I was happy the novel was behind me, even though through most of the story I couldn’t not listen.

By the end, the only question was what on earth was Landay going to do with Jacob. When the conclusion begins to take shape, I actually rolled my eyes. “You’re kidding,” I said to myself.  He’s not actually going to go there, is he?

Yes, he did.

Shit happens, sure.
William Landay’s novel Defending Jacob holds you—I’ll say that much. It has moments of fine courtroom drama. 

But when it was over, I couldn’t wait to get the heck out from behind the bench.

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