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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Jack, July" by Victor Lodato

Issue: Sept. 22, 2014

Story: "Jack, July"

Author: Victor Lodato

Rating: $$$$

Review: This is the best New Yorker story I've read since Greg Jackson's "Wagner in the Desert" from over the summer, and easily one of my top five of 2014...probably in my top two, along with said story.

The story covers one desperate day in the life of a meth-addict named Jack, who is suffering withdrawal symptoms on the Fourth of July on the oppressively hot streets of suburban Albuquerque. Told in a close third-person voice, the twisted, spinning, disjointed, unreliable nature of the narrative is like looking at Jack's world through a kaleidoscope.

Jack's memory and perceptions have been collapsed and tainted by meth, and Lodato does an incredible job of pulling that off through the narrative. Coming down off his most recent high, Jack returns to his girlfriend's house, looking to cop, only to find that she's no longer his girlfriend and has not been for a year. In fact, he ran out on her a year ago and has not seen her since. He's befuddled that it could have possibly been a year -- a whole year -- since he'd seen her, but it has been indeed.

Through a series of other mis-adventures, like a trip to his mother's house, Jack stumbles through the tattered shambles that have become his life, deluding himself into thinking that it's all not that bad and that there's a perfectly good explanation for it all, other than the fact that he's become a meth addict and has nothing left but his gay supplier named Jamie, who is in love with him.

The best part about the story, however, is not the catalog of sad encounters that reveal how low Jack has sunk over the past few years of his growing addiction, but the expert narration of Jack's hopelessly deluded thoughts. When lamenting the death of his friend Flaco -- who turned him on to meth -- he laments not that he and Flaco became addicted, but that meth has gotten a bad name:

"...[meth was] a precious substance whose unadvertised charm was love. It was infuriating that no one ever mentioned this. The posters, the billboards, the PSAs--all they talked about were the skin lesions and rotten teeth. Kids, sadly, were not getting well-rounded information."

This is a story about a man still deeply in love with the drug that is killing him; a man who has not yet hit rock bottom, but for whom rock bottom cannot be far off. And in Jack's case, it's very likely "rock-bottom" could mean death.

Through Jack's meth-clouded eyes we also learn about the fraying apart of his family (himself, sister, and mom) after his sister was mauled by a vicious neighborhood dog. Jack's jaundiced version of events, his feeling that he's actually helping his family by doing meth, is sadder than the circumstances themselves.

Describing his relationship with his sister, Lisa, after he's started doing meth, Jack says:

"He felt that by going fast (smoking meth) he was actually helping Lisa, he was helping all of them. He was building a white city out of crystal, inside his heart. When it was finished, there'd be room for everyone. For the first time in his life Jack had understood [his mother's] nonsense about positive thinking..."

I feel like Lodato has really achieved something here. Especially when you consider he is a playwright working in prose, his achievement is even more substantial. Granted, I have to plead ignorance of his other work -- prose or script -- taken by itself I have to believe this story breaks some new ground or at least polishes even finer a gem of the human experience perhaps unearthed by a better writer before him. The fractured, picaresque type storyline, combined with the unfortunate circumstances of Jack's family story, compounded and magnified by the living, on-going and self-inflicted tragedy of his drug addiction are all filtered through Jack's desperate and deluded brain, and the reader must decode Jack's fantasies, sift through the unreliability of his narrative, to find the true story.

I applaud Lodato for ultimately painting a realistic (or at least consistent within it's own self-established rules) picture of the all-consuming, life-destroying madness of addiction, while resisting the temptation to give the story even a hint of a happy ending. I think he could have done more to make Jack a sympathetic character -- because he's really not -- but perhaps that was his intention. Anyway...hell of a story that definitely bears re-reading.


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