Book Review : Scott Adlerberg - Jack Waters (2018)
I seldom think about what life was like in the past. At least, the pre-WWII era where you could shut the outside world out simply by not buying newspapers. It seems like a time where I would either been happier and more carefree or died obscenely young, like from polio at 11 years old. So, I have a difficult time projecting myself unto older settings. In order to do that, I need every variable from the past that was fun: guns, murders, angry government officials and men waging war over the pettiest shit, like a gambling debt. And I was served a faceful of that in Scott Adlerberg's new novel Jack Waters.
So, Jack Waters is the story of... well, Jack Waters. An New Orleans playboy (or at least, it's how I envisioned him) living off a family estate and poker until the day he settles the wrong debt and is forced into exile in a Caribbean island. Over there, things don't go smoothly either. Waters beats the army General ruling the island in a card game and becomes persona non grata. Only difference is that where there aren't any law institution, power is fluid and Jack Waters is free to get his money back and get his fucking money he will. Because you don't lose at cards to Jack Waters and not pay up. Whoever you might be.
I don't know anyone who writes the way Scott Adlerberg does. Novels like Jack Waters and Jungle Horses are so unique, peculiar and yet utterly accessible that I don't know anybody else even remotely similar. Their omniscient style and larger-than-life stories are mementos of nineteenth century writing, but their structure is clearly contemporary: they eschew unnecessary details, long descriptions and have little to no subplots. Reading a Scott Adlerberg novel is a cerebral trip. I can only compare it to watching someone build a miniature of a historical building. It's not really an emotional experience, but the craft and the precision are absolutely spellbinding.
Now, I've enjoyed the adventures of Jack Waters, because it was both extremely serious and petty at the same time. The titular character is looking to overthrow a government because it's the only way he can envision settling its dictator's gambling debt. Waters gets into it for inherently selfish reasons, yet his actions will impact the lives of others and turn the fate of the island in a way he didn't even conceive.
And Scott Adlerberg is blissfully aware of the dual nature of his novel. It is best illustrated in a scene where Jack Waters and an insurrectionist leader share a Brokeback Mountain moment, sheltered in a cave. That made the book fun to me: there's what Jack Waters wants and there are the consequences of his actions happening in parallel. There's this constant tongue-in-cheek allusion that important things are happening because there's a gambling debt to settle.
This is the complicated part where I tell you whether or not you should read Scott Adlerberg's Jack Waters. I quite enjoyed it, but it is written in such a peculiar, anachronistic way that it will be tough for some readers to get into it out of the blue. I don't believe it's a novel you can viscerally love like a throat-grabbing thriller or, let's say, a Haruki Murakami novel. This is like, a writing stunt. A display of craft and subtlety that will make you nod your head in approval more than it will make you clutch your fists in anticipation. I guess Scott Adlerberg is an acquired taste, but he's one I do have acquired.