Sunday, July 14, 2019

Book Review: 'Jerkwater' by Jamie Zerndt

Jerkwater by Jamie Zerndt
‘Ignorance is a dangerous thing. But now at least you know its face’

For those who have had the privilege of reading Portland, Oregon writer James Zerndt's second novel THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY then the magic he weaves so successfully in his debut novel THE CLOUD SEEDERS came as no surprise: it is every bit as satisfying a read as his other book. As for his second novel, not only did Jamie grasp the secret of how to unravel a well-constructed story, complete with a slow character build up, an interplay of all the characters with a natural evolution, a denouement that is transcendent, and a resolution that leaves the reader with a feeling of complete satisfaction, but he also has elected in THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY to use a writing style that follows the tilt of the story - a mixture of Western prose with isolated lines that resemble Eastern haiku that spaces his interwoven tale in chards that the reader can assemble as a part of the reading process. Jamie's time spent in Korea enhances his ability to pulse Korean language and customs and manners naturally, and that is one of the reasons the balance between the Korean aspect and the American aspect is so smooth. And in his newest achievement - JERKWATER - if anything Jamie proves that his first successes were not serendipity. In looking back in the direction of the storytelling origins of Jamie the seeds were all there, sow in his very short story THE JERKWATER LIFE, published in 2013. Now Jamie expands the scope of that initial nidus idea and we are privy to the complete JERKWATER.

When an author can ring bells in his first paragraphs - bells that remind us of Jamie's penchant for exploring cultural similarities and differences as well as the heavier subjects of death and its aftermath. Witness: There were spots in the lake where the anchor never hit bottom. The murkiness always fascinated Shawna. She knew it was only tangles of muskgrass and pondweed down there, but a part of her couldn’t help but imagine strange, never-before-seen creatures dwelling among the coontails and duckweed. Like Wisconsin anglerfish. Or some rare breed of dwarf whale. And maybe the lake was bottomless, like in those stories her mother used to tell her where Nanaboozhoo was always stumbling and laughing his way through the world. Shawna dug around inside the cooler. Her journal was peeking out from under a tin of sardines. Ever since the day her stepfather had taken her mother away from her, the journal had become a sort of artificial limb for Shawna. Or maybe an artificial organ, a somewhat bulky and awkward replacement for what had been her heart. “It’s not the world’s fault you’re lonely,” Shawna said out loud.’

From the original short story we gained that Douglas' dad died and he is a loner and lonely and bleak. Shawna's a Native American whose mother was shot in the face and killed by her step-father and she bonds with a horse and with Douglas over simple conversations until racial incidents disrupt their bland existence: Douglas sides with Shawna over fishing rights escalating the underlying bifurcation of human rights in this Wisconsin burg. And to this Jamie adds, ‘Set in Mercer, Wisconsin, where tensions over Native American fishing rights are escalating, JERKWATER is told from three alternating points-of-view: Shawna Reynolds, a young Ojibwa woman who doesn’t much care for white people to begin with, and who is quickly being pulled in a direction she may no longer have a desire to resist; Kay O’Brien, Shawna’s 64-year-old, usually drunk, neighbor who is still grieving the loss of her husband; And Kay’s son, Douglas, who now finds himself in charge of running the family’s auto repair shop while dealing with his own feelings of guilt.JERKWATER is a story about the racial tensions churning just beneath the surface of what often appears to be placid, everyday American life.’

Point beautifully made with few words. But Jamie is so polished a writer that he inserts comic relief to provide breathing. This is a writer who can impress on every level – story line, social commentary, and attention to our heritage and its impact. But read it for yourself and see. Very highly recommended.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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Two kings. Two princes. One queen. The true story of five aristocrats separated by time, culture, and circumstance -- all of them bound to the United States by accidents of history and left to hope for a tomorrow better than today. Prepare for a vision of the American Dream as few others have ever seen it.