Sunday, September 4, 2016

Review: "Prodigals" by Greg Jackson

After finishing Prodigals, the debut short story collection by newcomer Greg Jackson, I knew I would have to let it sit for a day. After letting time pass, the first thing I would like to mention is that this collection won’t be for everyone. It’s one of those books that I have mentioned in the past that I will put in the category of personal favorites: books whose qualities I can see but will completely understand if someone does not like it, such as Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the ultimate personal favorite, or Mo Yan’s Frog, my most recent personal favorite. Having got that out of the way, I found myself quite floored by this collection, which I found smart, maddening and compulsively readable. Reading the first story, I thought I had this book pegged: it reminded me of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers, or at the very least a spiritual relative of that book, the reasoning behind this I will get to soon, but the deeper I read into this collection, the more I focused on it, I realized this book is something totally different and it defies any kind of logical pigeonholing. Yes, the people in these stories are privileged, and find themselves drawn, through boredom to the darker sides of life, but Jackson isn’t so much interested in that as he is in the hidden pockets of humanity that accidently unveil one’s true desires, and by the end, he even loses interest in that, using his skills to deconstruct how we interact and our hidden motives. The first story in this collection, which led to the Ellis comparison, “Wagner in the Desert” sees a group of twenty-year olds having a last hurrah in the desert, while they orchestrate deals that will leave them financially comfortable and sustain their elite status. That alone doesn’t begin to describe why this story is so good. Jackson’s skillful way of setting the scene, getting into the character’s head, and by having the closest thing to the story’s theme being revealed by a side character make these stories something special. It is a an idea that finds its way into other stories as well, like “Dynamics in a Storm” where a man and a woman who might be his therapist (is he her patient, then why does he know such intimate details of her life?) are stuck in rainstorm and their journey becomes a reflection on regret, malice and longing, and the final story, the appropriately named “Metanarrative Breakdown”, where two cousins, bonding while the family patriarch lies on his death bed, swap stories, one of which involves a love interest, shrooms, MDMA, and a deeply philosophical car lot attendant. My favorite story is “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy” where a couple visits old friends in the French countryside, and the menace of a locked room and a washed-up tennis star establish a disturbing, disquieting milieu. These stories a re rife with unnoticed pain, uncheck longing, like the painful “Amy’s Conversions”, and each struck a cord, whether I was consciously aware of it at the time or not. One of the strongest debuts I’ve come across this year.

Rating: 5/5

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