Monday, December 27, 2010

Seth Harwood's YOUNG JUNIUS and the Problem with Prequels

Prequels can be problematic.

Seth Harwood's latest page-turner, Young Junius, both is and is not a perfect example of why this is so. Set in the extremely troubled youth of an interesting but somewhat minor character in Jack Wakes Up, the book that has made his name in crime fiction and Podiobooks circles, it thus sets itself a huge problem from page one: maintaining the tension and a sense of jeopardy regarding a character whose ultimate fate is already known to almost everyone who's reading the book.

Fortunately for these readers, Harwood has a fine sense of drama, even of tragedy, and found lots of other ways to keep the story of Junius Posey, who will become the rich, powerful and toweringly intimidating Junius Ponds in Jack Wakes Up, from ever getting tedious, though it does get confusing at times.

Most of the confusion comes from the sheer number of characters with which Harwood populates the small and constrained world of Cambridge's famously depressed and depressing Rindge Towers and their environs. While everybody gets a believable and distinct backstory and a vivid moniker to go with it (Big Pickup, Milk, Roughneck, Elf, Rock), sometimes it gets hard to keep sorted who is on whose side -- not because this is handled sloppily, but because their allegiances shift within the story, as real people's might, and the action shifts chapter by chapter, floor by floor, tower by tower, sometimes with a bewildering rapidity that ironically demands a slow and careful reading to keep things sorted. This is problematic, however, because that kind of reading is most obviously not what Harwood had in mind; he ends so many chapters with breathtaking, one-sentence mini-cliffhangers that the reader rushes along to see how each gets resolved. Its a technical feat requiring a great deal of skill, which Harwood has, but it makes for a certain degree of reader punishment.

It does keep said reader from dwelling on the fact that Junius' ultimate fate is known, however!

I opened the pages of this very handsome book (and handsome it truly is; Tyrus Books did it proud for the hardcover special edition which I, a diehard "Palms Momma," had to have: the dust jacket is gorgeous and features a great piece of fan art depicting Junius and his Tec 9 on the back cover, the pages are substantial and crisp and include a small spread of exquisite photos of the real-life settings where the book's action takes place, and yes, there is a bookmarking ribbon) expecting more of a formative study of how Junius got to be Junius, though, and this I did not really get. At age 14, his admired older brother barely cold in the ground from his murder, Junius' character is largely formed: he is smart, resourceful, tough, ruthless and ready to do what he must. He merely lacks experience, which quickly makes him the (dangerous!) prey of the more-experienced and less-straightforward inhabitants of his world who see in him an ideal pawn. The story we get is a wonderful encapsulation of who he is and how he crystallized into the pure badass we quickly come to admire in Jack Wakes Up, but it is not an origin myth.

It does have mythic overtones, however, and those both of Greek tragedy and Graeco-Roman war epics like the Iliad and the Aeneid. As the eXile's War Nerd, Gary Brecher has famously observed, these classics play out exactly like "primitive" wars throughout history and even today, and Harwood's fictionalized version of the Rindge Towers is as soaked in this blood-and-soil ethos as any bush war or peasant uprising you'd care to name. Women are either prizes to be carried off and kept, or serve as oracles (Young Junius has two of these, a false and a true one, and like good oracles should, they drive much of the plot while sitting calmly still in their domains); men are kings, soldiers or helots (In Young Junius, one king is exiled -- to MCI Billerica -- with his Oracular sister serving as an unsteady regent, fending off the advances of the other king, who holds only one of the three Towers but wants to take everything), and loyalty is demanded and paid over in the form of seeking bloody, eye-for-an-eye revenge for harm done to one's boy.

Shades of video gaming, too, appear in this book; whole scenes unfold before the mind's eye as side-scrolling shoot-outs, taking place in confined housing project corridors, platform jumpers in stairwell battles, as Junius storms the stronghold of Rock, the enemy king who has introduced the scourge of crack cocaine to his world. These fights are swift, brutal and intricate, complicated again by the difficulty keeping track of who is on whose side, and the characters' tendency to lie about it.

Disappearing in all of this drama and bloodshed, often, is Junius himself. He is a cypher, a figurant, a non-character, the cold little center around all else revolves, even as he is in almost constant, relentless motion. We see less of his interior self and inner motivations than of anyone else's, but I think that's a wise choice on Harwood's part because, again, most of his readers know that Junius is the one character whose future is known; it would be a ham-fisted mistake of Whovian proportions to make too much of the story's drama revolve around putting Junius in false jeopardy.

Missing, too, and this is my only genuine regret about the book, is, alas, what was most powerful in the Jack Palms novels it pre- and succeeds. It's a quality I'm having trouble describing well, even to myself, but its absence glares out at me to such a degree that I can't just leave this out.

Jack Palms, as we first come to know him in Jack Wakes Up, is a character in recovery, who has been lying low and healing from a prior life of damaging excess. His return to meaningful interaction with others, to action, to anything resembling a game in which to have skin, is a poignant subtext to all of the mayhem of his career through the drug-dealing, gun-toting, club-hopping San Francisco in which that novel takes place. His hard-won return to health and balance and fitness is constantly tested; he is constantly having to evaulate its worth to him in the face of temptations to backslide, which he does, but only to a minor degree; he's not a boring recovery saint, just saying no to everything, but a man, a real and ordinary man who would still like to have a little fun now and then. The delicate tension achieved there is what I have admired most about Harwood's work to date, and there's nothing really to match it in Young Junius -- at least not overtly.

But maybe I'm not looking for it in the right place.

A word about this milieu, and Harwood's relationship to it. As anyone who listens to the man for even a moment detects immediately, the Boston area is Harwood's home, and he grew up, to some degree, in the shadow of the Rindge Towers.* He's a white boy, though, of no inconsiderable education, and so some might question how accurate his depiction of this day in the life of another socio-economic class, another race, another world within his world. More sensitive/angry souls might even question his right to do so. I give him a pass on this, myself; the story is well and vividly told, heartfelt, and feels true in that deep, mythic way that, for me, transcends any questions of journalistic "true life" veracity. I am, of course, a white girl from Wyoming, so feel free to question my right to make that judgment if you like. I imagine this story, perhaps, first occurred to Harwood as a young man, as he looked up in awe and perhaps terror at those towers, and imagined what life within them must be like; a strong and sympathetic imagination can go as far as direct experience when coupled with talent and drive, which Seth surely has proven he has in plenty.

And perhaps that is where the poignancy and the real tension I'm looking for went, this time.

A final word about Harwood and how he rolls. As you'll see if you click on the hotlink above to Jack Wakes Up, he releases all of his fiction as free audiobooks at his website, via iTunes and at That's how he first built up his fan base and drew the notice of his first publisher, Three Rivers Press/Random House. While some might say that now he's made a name, he doesn't need to keep giving away his work for free this way, but we Palms Mommas and Palms Daddies agree that while his narration of his fiction is top-notch and adds immensely to his audience's experience, there's still nothing to beat having the book (or e-book) in one's hands. But you can go judge for yourself! Go listen to a chapter or two of Jack Wakes Up, Young Junius, or his extraordinarily moving short story collection A Long Way From Disney, and I bet you'll wind up casting a few ducats his way.

*I spent a few years in that shadow, after a fashion, myself, though mostly just through riding the long escalator at the Porter T-stop on my way to buy Japanese junk food and other amusing sundries at the Porter Exchange Building. I remember admiring the odd bronze mittens along its rails that Harwood so lovingly described and photographed. At the time I always just thought it was an odd bit of public art, not thinking too deeply about the history of the North Cambridge neighborhood which the stop served. Retroactively now, the bronze mittens give me the chills and feel like a sad little memorial to the lost innocence and innocents of the crack epidemic that had raged there most seriously a few years before my soujourn in the Boston area in the mid-90s.

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