Book Review : Grant Jerkins - Abnormal Man (2016)
When discussing the tormented road to publication of his novel Abnormal Man, Grant Jerkins tells the story of a man who loved Alice Cooper more than anything in the world. Lots of people love Alice Cooper, but his music had a profound meaning for that guy in particular. And that's why Jerkins persevered through the rejection of Abnormal Man by his long-time publisher. Because it could be of use to that one guy. It could save one damage life at some point. It's a moving story. One I can relate to. Could I relate to Abnormal Man the same way? Was I that one guy? Not quite, but let me tell you something. That book is DIFFERENT. It's bold, courageous and...quite difficult to talk about. I will do my best, though. Bear with me.
Abnormal Man is the story of Billy Smith, a maladjusted high school kid with no desire whatsoever outside of surviving his day-to-day life with his abusive stepbrother Harvey. Billy's life is turned upside down the day he witnesses his coworker Frank mangle another employee who was bullying him. Frank, an ex-convict with little to no faith in the system, prefers to disappear than explain his action to the police. He takes Billy along with him. Because Billy is a witness and he cares about him. Sees a lot of himself in the kid. Plus, he figures nobody else really cares about Billy more than he does. Frank and Billy will seek asylum in the nearby Georgia mountain with an old friend of Frank and shit gets DARK. Put your bleak pants on for this one.
The refreshing thing about Abnormal Man is that it's a deterministic crime novel, which is a wonderful change of pace from the dime store existentialism the genre usually offers. That whole romanticized I-choose-to-be-an-outlaw-and-only-care-about-the-people-I-want thing. There's none of that here. Determinism is the philosophical belief that your immediate actions are dictated by something which happened in the past and it's shrewdly exemplified in Abnormal Man. Billy is a deviant kid, sure but he's compassionate and fundamentally non-violent. He's not the one who mangled his co-worker, Frank did. He's not the one who did these dark things in the mountains, but he helped covering them up because he felt Frank and Chandler were family. Grant Jerkins uses second person narration in Abnormal Man, which isn't just a stylistic choice. The omniscient narrator is telling the characters what's happening to them. They have no agency over their actions.
One thing I had a difficult time wrapping my mind around was the anger with which Abnormal Man was written with. There's a strong aura of anger around this book. The blurbs used to promote it are rejection emails from a major publisher Jerkins used to work with. And it doesn't get any lighter once the novel begins. There are a lot of ugly and difficult scenes that openly dare readers to finish them. In one of his first chapters, Billy is jerking off while burning toilet paper. It's a tough and pathetic scene that isn't either enjoyable or enlightening. I mean, that establishes Billy as an irredeemable outcast and a firebug so it serves a purpose, but it condemns him both in the book and for the readers because it only goes downhill from there. The main things I'll will remember about Abnormal Man will be the burning anger and the confrontational scenes more than the characters themselves. Sure, it's a sad and tragic story, which I believe could've used a little more nuance to make its point.
Abnormal Man is a tough book to talk about because there isn't much to compare it to. I was reminded of a movie called The Place Beyond The Pines while reading it. Their stories are quite different, but philosophically they're saying more or less the same thing: that behind every tragedy, there are people being carried by events and trying their best to survive. I was on the fence about whether or not I liked Abnormal Man, just like I was with The Place Beyond The Pines when it came out but I think it's a good book. It's gorgeously written, I agree with what it's trying to say, but I maybe I thought it was a little to confrontational in the execution. I'm inviting you to make an opinion for yourself, though. It's a book that is controversial by nature, so you might completely disagree with me.