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Jack is a clean, satisfying success

By Mark Adamo

First-person narratives are like opera performances; you'll forgive anything if the voice moves you. But the difference between most opera books and A.M. Homes's new novel is that the former usually strain belief, whereas Jack invites it at every turn. 

The plot deserves a special mention, and not because it's spectacular. Jack makes a story from the most usual of materials; amid the debris of failed families, a teenage boy gets his first whiff of adulthood. The most unusual event is the one that opens the novel. Jack, the extraordinarily ordinary teenager as the book's center, finds out that his father left his mother for another man. 

But the various lines of this story intertwine and highlight each other with contrapuntal elegance. Jack's best buddy Max, who another character acidly describes as "the sort of person who could do with a little therapy," has what seems to be the perfect family. Max's mother Lorraine always asks Jack to drop by for dinner just when he needs it most, and her husband is the best sort of hearty, distracted patriarch. (Only Max himself is given to restaging the television in his basement, and injecting Twinkies with turquoise food coloring.)

But then, over a nightmare weekend on the relatives' farm, the marriage explodes, and Jack is there to see it. In witnessing this parallel family crisis, Jack fully experiences his own for the first time. Homes finds in a seemingly casual narrative the emotional symmetries that give the book its strong structure. 

And yet, good as the story is, Jack's "sound" is better. Holmes's ear for teenage slang is perfectly attuned, which makes for some great laughs. As his mother's new lover lets himself in the door, redundantly announcing, "I'm home," Jack snaps to himself, "No, Michael, you're not home, it's not you, it's just your aura, an aura with a key," But lots of writers get teenspeak right. What Homes achieves in Jack is the seamless illusion that Jack himself has written the novel. Not only the slang, but also the syntax, the rhythm, the unselfconscious observation seem to come from a teenager innocent of the compulsion to be clever and from a writer utterly without affection. Jack is constantly recreating its world before you, refreshing by the act of observation scenes we've heard and played ourselves a hundred times.

"'It's because of your father,' she said. 'You should know that.'
'So?' I said, like I could use one word, spoken in the right tone, to defend myself."

Jack describes everyone well. It's beleaguered, hyperconscious adults are as beautifully drawn as is little Sammy, Max's two-year-old brother, who upon having little brown frogs thrown at him (reasons of the plot) "first burst into tears and screamed hysterically and then almost as quickly began laughing like a madman." Homes doesn't need brand names to evoke a world shaped by them. 

And Jack's finale treats a moment so often rendered trite in other writing and reimagines it with the simplicity and freshness that distinguishes the rest of the book. Its last sentence, "... and I heard the ball go whooshing through the metal net," may well describe the reader's response to his story as well as Jack himself; the book is the terrific debut of an original writer, a clean satisfying success.