Steven Gould, Jumper (Starscape, 2002)
A boy teleports... "jumps"... first, in times of stress; later, he learns to control it. Used to finding his escape in books, 'jumping' away from an abusive home seems a foregone conclusion. It's an interesting premise. I was interested, so I asked to review the book. Then I read it...
The protagonist of the story, seventeen year old Davy, is an incongruously intelligent whiner who cries three times in the first four pages, four times by page ten. Wonder what will happen next, turn the page, and you can bet it will be soaked with Davy's tears. The plot quickly becomes an exercise in wondering whether moisture will be averted... tune in next chapter, to see whether Davy will cry... or... merely well up with tears...
It's odd... The boy is considering the possibility of his own "irrational psychosis" by page 22. Later, our hero of seventeen is tossing around terms like "debt relief". Somewhat later, the author is explaining what a yarmulke is. Instead of a tale that will 'please young and old alike', it's a book that could only be written for adults, lapses into a pedantry that some people reserve for children, and is bound to satisfy neither. By then, Davy has cried three more times.
A fellow reviewer once said of a female character in C.S. Lewis' Til We Have Faces, that 'she's a woman but, listening to her, she's a man. He didn't write a woman; maybe he couldn't.' This kid sounds and thinks like an adult who cries rivers to prove he's a child. He's not a delightefully bright and educated teenager; he's an adult written as a boy. Fortunately, one is given a 25 page reprieve before the waterworks are turned on again.
Oceans of tears are made into tantrums... minutes after one crying episode (Someone had said something unkind.) he is in his room thinking "Why did people have to do that sort of shit? Wouldn't anything ever work out right?" When not crying, he pounds his bed, breaks dishes, pounds the wall, yells a few delicate swear words...
Yes, I know, he's been abused. But the treatment of physical abuse by a lazy, drunken, wife-beating father in the opening chapter is trite, stereotyped, and borders on an insipid flippancy. One guesses that the author is either unacquainted with the kind of physical attacks he strives to portray, or else is 'blocking out' the trauma of them in a way similar to his protagonist.
So too are the rough dangers of New York City all too safe, and the experiences - ratty hotel (whine), bad smells (whine), pandhandlers (awwww), and muggers (whine) - as grimly predictable as a cold can of peas. If you're thinking Tom Hanks in Big, yes you've probably seen this one. We're guided through it all safely enough. Someone even holds the reader's hand... After being cracked on the noggin and coming to in a sticky red pool... "The sticky stuff on the sidewalk was blood."
Whatever safe, suburban, pampered, childless world this tale of a child comes from... The very roughness seems to substitute for any real experience with life at a desperate level. The storyline is punctuated by an attempted gang rape of the boy, complete with Vaseline, presumably representing the dangers of 'the road' and of running away. Yes, it's nasty. But repulsion is not the same as a compelling sense of danger.
While the pop psychology does start to be interesting, even wonderful, later in the book, as it takes the much more desireable form of the love of a woman, in Part One it is as canned as everything else... "If I'd only been better as a kid. Maybe Mom wouldn't have gone, Dad wouldn't drink so much..." The shame and guilt are so utterly "made-for-tv" that one cannot consider them a legitimate reaction of the protagonist's subconscious. This is further marred by the character's constant standing outside of himself in ways that force the reader to stand outside as well. If the intent was for the reader to identify with Davy, this device certainly undermines it.... again leading to the question of whether in fact the author ever identified with this character.... at least, as a child.
The first laugh with rather than merely at the story doesn't come until a prank on page 20. There are more laughs, a chance to towel off a little.... The runaway thinking about his unusual ability: "What if DAD is a teleport!" The runaway looking at his father's home: "The yard needs mowing. I'll bet THAT pisses him off!"
Real relief begins to be provided when, late in chapter two the boy starts to grow emotionally stronger because of his special ability. It's relief for the reader, but not for the integrity of the story... after all, his sole claim to inner strength is magic. To the degree that the book is pedantic, complete with 12-step program, it doesn't offer anything for it's abused child to hold onto except the unreal. Ironically, in such circumstances, that may be the only escape there is.
Finally, sopping wet, one arrives at Part II, and it's almost as though the pen has been picked up by a different author. Almost. This is where the story starts to have some real merit. Part one should either be rewritten or retold, but definitely warrants a recall. "What would you do Davy, if you were rich? I'd be happy." Part II is entitled, "The Pursuit of Happiness."
Buckets are needed again, of course... He goes to a show... "I cried during the second act"
The incongruity is still there, too. He's a crybaby but he's suave with women. Very suave. And his lover... Milly... well, she's hot. Very hot.
He's suave with others as well. There's a lovely bit when he returns home, goes to a party, and finds his old friends unchanged. He looks at the former school bully... posing... 'he's just a kid'... and busts out laughing. As Davy becomes more or less an adult, the story begins to become genuine. By now, too, but with little transition, Davy has become the consummate gentleman. Whatever they may be, whatever their faux paus, no one is made to feel small.
(The bartender) pulled two wineglasses off a rack behind the bar.
"Not those... the flutes. Christ, Tommy. Champagne flutes."
She looked over at me and rolled her eyes. Tommy blushed.
"I use mason jars myself, I said. I smiled at Tommy...
After refusing a dance with this same debutante...
"What's the big idea? Don't you know how many guys at this party want to dance with me?"
"I can see why. You're very attractive, and you dance like a dream."
See what I mean? Being made to feel small is a big issue
for this young man, and the author strums it beautifully, except for the
tantrums, throughout the story.
Four pages later, though... "I felt like crying..." By now one begins to guess that crying is one of the irrational vestiges of abuse that the young man must overcome. Still, s'just too much. Three pages after that... (calming down from a different incident) "I felt a little less like crying...". Six pages later... crying again, this time because he's a virgin. Suaveness? Gone. Millie's response ("It's all right to cry") is undoubtedly the author's mantra. Naturally, 36 pages later, Millie is crying. Wouldn't you be?
One pleads with the protagonist (p. 135), "Is there no end to tears?"
Not quite. 87 pages later, he's grown used to tears merely "forming". A little squint, some sting, and a hand wiping it away. Of course, and there is some more crying, some of it is justifiable. If you can't cry over killing someone, you've got more than a broken soul.
The "special effects" of the story are not particularly impressive, but what is interesting is the protagonist's process of learning the rules of 'jumping'. One wants to know what it is, what makes it work, but none of that is ever really clarified except with vague appeals to Einstein. It's a hook that keeps one reading. This is actually fortunate since the love story later on actually makes this tale. It's so desireable, it should be a short-story and leave it at that. And the adventure interwoven with that is a lot of fun, similar perhaps in tone to the classic John Buchan adventure The Thirty-nine Steps.
The intimacy between Davy and his lover Millie made it worth the read. It's familiar... and books rarely accomplish that. The sexuality, the love, the discussion... interwoven, as they are... will take a sucker for romances by storm.
I laughed all the way at part one. From then on, there was comedy at which to laugh. Irony. The author, on all counts... intimacy, manners, intellect, culture, and comedy was more comfortable writing an adult.
My favorite line in the book is when Davy, answering the charge that he can't, by redeeming his mother's death, redeem all who have died, replies, "They weren't MY dead." My dead... there's emotional substance here, and elsewhere in the story. It lectures a little, but not too obviously. Again, it is the device of the love affair that saves it. Love heals, in this book.
There's promise here, if you bring a pair of waders and a snorkel. There are things I've mentioned that I'm glad I didn't miss. If you're a good swimmer, and are willing to either skip the first part or dive into it, you'll enjoy yourself. Otherwise, look for a drier book.
[Asher Black ]