Released Oct 20, 2009
Reviewed by Jason Rodriguez
This feeling of futility, of an unwanted passenger, of being unable to run from your commitments, has been captured in Monte Schulz’s This Side of Jordan. Alvin Pentegrast, our teenage protagonist, decides to take a job with a complete stranger provided it pulls him off his farm, where his current tuberculosis relapse is beginning to signal a trip back to the sanitarium. His new employer is Chester Burke, a good-looking swindler and loner gangster who quickly proves to be a violent sociopath. Fortunately for Alvin, the pair picks-up a third traveling companion along the way, the dwarf Rascal, who currently spends most of his time under his Auntie’s house and constantly tells stories of adventure seeking and Roosevelt dinner parties from a past life, back when his uncle was alive and would take him out into the world. Alvin and Rascal embark on this journey of escape, trying to leave their past lives behind, only to find themselves trapped in a Packard with a man who has no regard for human life and who would likely kill both of them if they prove to no longer be useful.
Schulz’s book is filled with magnificent characterization, rich environments, and a sharp humor (when a bank teller doesn’t take Alvin’s bomb threats serious, Alvin tells him, “I’m not feeling too good and I might be contagious, so give me the money, dumbbell”) that takes you off guard and makes the horrific moments a more effective punch to the gut. The book takes place in 1929, before the Great Crash and during the height of prohibition, and finds our characters driving across the Midwest, leaving a trail of carnage in their wake. Speakeasies, hip-flasks, churches, banks, dance derbies, loose men and women, and circuses provide a backdrop of a country living in excess with few legal options to unwind to. It’s a perfect setting for a man like Chester Burke to make his fortune, and a perfect opportunity for men like Alvin and Rascal to find their escapes.
Alvin is an odd sort of a protagonist. I found myself having nothing but disdain for him at times, his sense of entitlement and his tendency to take his disappointments and let-downs out on Rascal make him a hard character to love, such as when he interrupts Rascal while he’s talking with a preacher’s daughter, throws the girl’s bible on the floor, and tells her, “only dumbbells ever believed there was such a thing, and I don’t need no ugly little girl telling me nothing to the contrary!” But his naïveté, his impending death, and his occasional bit of humor make his relatable if not loveable, at times. Rascal quickly becomes the star of this book – he’s mysterious at first, a character you cheer for without ever knowing why. But as his story unfolds he becomes an increasingly sympathetic character, and you look forward to his stories and fear for his eventual fate. Chester is the perfect villain – only used when necessary and used for full effect every time. Alvin and Rascal are the ones who keep the safe-house safe, the car running, run a diversion while Chester carries out another plan designed to line their coffers. Chester always tends to show up at the end of these scenes like a force of nature, improvising on a botched plan, getting the money he’s after and leaving torn limbs and dead bodies in his wake. He never once comments on his actions, after every score he comments on the weather or his hunger as if murder is routine and necessary and fun. Whenever he enters the scene you know something cringe-worthy is about to happen, and you know that Alvin and Rascal are falling further down the rabbit hole and getting to a point where true escape is becoming impossible. Even if they physically escape this hell, their soles will never be complete again.
The book challenges the reader to think about faith and redemption, commitment and escape. It puts us in the passenger seat of Chester’s Packard and makes us ask what makes a person good, and whether or not we can truly escape our lives.
And, of course, I cannot write a review of this book without mentioning that its author, Monte Schulz, is the son of the late, great Charles Schulz – the creator of Peanuts. I didn’t want to lead with that fact, however, because the book stands on its own and shouldn’t be judged by the fact that the writer had a famous father. Monte has a voice of his own, and This Side of Jordan would still be a fantastic and moving novel even if Peanuts has never existed.
Jason Rodriguez is an Eisner and Harvey-nominated graphic novel editor that lives in Arlington, VA with his wife, two dogs, three cats, and hated bird. He recently reviewed Red Monkey Double Happiness Book on First Person Plural.