by Jonathan M. Cook
Publication Date: February 14, 2013
Available in: Print & ebook, 185 Pages
In this thought-provoking novel about an event that could become a headline for months in any small town or rural community, high school English teacher, Jonathan M. Cook, gives us the story of one Julian Sane, a high school English teacher about to get tenure at a school that graduates 100 and some students each year.
The early chapters are quite difficult to get through. Not because they aren't well-written for it was the writing itself that kept me hanging in there. Besides I participated in the tour for his Youth and Other Fictions two years ago and had reason to trust him. No, not the writing nor the story events in themselves caused the aftertaste of bile that rose up in me as I was stuck inside the head of first-person, narrator, POV protagonist, Julian Sane whom the author was purposely creating as an unlikable arrogant, sarcastic, mean spirited, obnoxious, cynical, elitist young man, who believes that anyone refusing to see life in that same light is not living in reality.
Personally I think he's the one not grounded in reality and wonder if the author is giving us an unreliable narrator. Further, I wonder if it is just a coincidence that Cook chose the name Julian rather than Julius to pair with the last name Sane. But I figured that was just me seeing more than was actually there because it is the kind of games I play with my character's names. But then his sister, Clare, walks on stage and starts calling Julian Julie and it becomes plausible again.. Julie nSane?
Making it even more plausible is the name Clare Sane for the one character in the book who has a mature, reflective, grounded character. Gotta wonder.
So for nearly a quarter of this short novel we are subjected to the observations, behaviors and inner thoughts of a man who is bored into ennui with his life and the people in it, who is willing to humiliate with loud scathing words the timid waitress who poured his precious scotch over ice, who drinks himself into oblivion nearly every night, who thinks relationships longer than one-night-stands are pointless biologically driven instinct, and who verbally abuses the women he uses for sex, treating them like used toilet paper stuck on his shoe.
Not until the page where Clare barges in are we given the first glimmer of redeeming qualities in Julian. We see that he is capable of treating a woman with love and respect and able to have a deep relationship bond with her. So the question is, what happened to skew his character so? The first thing that drew my attention as a possible answer to that was when the fact of his parent's death came up and Julian had no witty, caustic, shock-jock-like response. Only a terse statement. They were gone. It happened a few years ago. Which implies it happened to both on the same day and thus was not by natural causes.
This reaction to the topic caused me to wonder if there is a deep, dark pain at the root of his noxious world-view and crass behavior. If so, the possibility for redemption as he works to break out of the prison created by trauma increases its potency. I'm not saying yea or nay as that borders on spoiler territory.
Not many pages later he is falling in love with a woman he describes as different than any he had every seen before. That he is after all capable of falling in love and developing an ongoing relationship is a good sign that he could redeem himself by the end.
But on the other hand...
The nature of this relationship in this particular community is cause for wondering if he has just exchanged the dark unreality for one seeming to be light itself tho outside observers can see the growing dark in the center of the light. For the woman is 18 and five sixths. And had graduated from his high school only one year earlier.
He knows this is taboo and tries to resist the attraction. As the relationship develops, slowly, we watch his temperament lighten, his demeanor brighten and we want to root for him. But its uncomfortable. No matter how sternly we tell ourselves that 18, nearly 19, is adult and after all she was never one of his own students, there is just something queasy about the situation. Maybe its only because I'm from the generation just prior to Jonathan Cook's (he's the age a son born in the early years of my marriage would be now) and have witnessed in life, news and novels how the power differential in a relationship where one is an authority figure (teacher, mentor, doctor, priest, Uncle, counselor, boss) distorts the ability of both individuals to know for sure where volition on the part of the subordinate becomes less than pure.
And it seems one who is, like Julian, immersed in more than a century of culture through film and novels and history and news, should understand that well enough to know why he should back off and let Lilly finish growing up, that if it is real love it will last and mature over time.
He should also understand the community reaction as the news leaks for it can't be written off as busybodies interfering in what isn't their business as it is one of a community's essential roles to nurture and protect their young and though they may not be able to articulate it as well as he can, they know the danger in the situation and fear it and are instinctively protective of one of their own.
He should also understand that fear is contagious and cultures mob mentality like yeast does bear. Although very irrational things can happen when mob mentality takes hold it must be acknowledged that at the root of the fear there is a completely rational basis. For even tho Lilly is legally adult, just about everyone over 22 could admit that she has a ways to go yet before she can see her world with mature clarity.
Just to be clear, in spite of the difficulties I discussed above I enjoyed this novel and am not sorry for the time I invested in it. I am partial to well written stories that take me out of my comfort zone, give me pause, and make me puzzle out solutions to the questions raised there in and, most importantly, don't spoon feed me but expect me to work as co-creator of the story. This one will linger long in my conscious and unconscious mind leaving its mark on my consciousness of the world. That is the mark of true literature.
From the Publishers:
“Love makes sinners of us all.”
In the sleepy Midwestern town of Vespers…
In the sweltering summer heat…
Julian Sane, high school teacher and cad’s cad, is a man at war with himself. But a chance encounter with a former student will push him across professional boundaries and force him to confront his personal demons.
From the author of YOUTH AND OTHER FICTIONS comes a love story for those who live in the real world, where love does not conquer all and actions do have consequences.
Note: SINNERMAN has attracted some controversy in Jonathan M. Cook’s hometown due to a number of similarities between events in the book and actual events in the community over the past several years. This book is a work of fiction!
What they are saying:
Jonathan M. Cook was born in 1982. He studied Literature, Composition, and Creative Writing at Eastern Illinois University before moving to Robinson, IL, to become a high school English teacher and faculty advisor for the student newspaper. He is currently at work on his third novel.
Jonathan M. Cook’s Website
Jonathon M. Cook Facebook
Jonathan M. Cook Twitter
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