Monday, February 01, 2010

Book Review: This Side of Jordan

This Side of Jordan
By Monte Schulz

Twelve years after the publication of his first novel, “Down by the River,” Monte Schulz makes his return with his second, “This Side of Jordan,” the first volume of a trilogy about the Jazz age in America.

Set during the summer of 1929, story Schulz’s takes place during the middle of Prohibition, and just before the stock market crash which would later be recognized as the beginning of the great depression. His protagonist, Alvin Pendergast, is a consumptive Illinois farm boy who is at best ambivalent about his life on the farm. Having thus far survived tuberculosis, he lives his life begrudgingly doing chores on his aunt and uncle’s farm. He occasionally escapes the drudgery of his life by going into town to watch, and vicariously participate in, dance marathons. He isn’t necessarily envious of the lives of others, but he longs for a different, more active life for himself.

At one such dance marathon Alvin meets Chester Burke, a smooth talking conman who drives a tan Packard Six. It doesn’t take much for Chester to convince Alvin to leave his life on the farm for a night and come with him across the Mississippi River, for a bite to eat and a stay overnight.

The next day Chester drops Alvin off in Hadleyville, Missouri with instructions to meet him at the bank. When he gets there he is to walk up to the window and hand the teller a note, “My nephew here is come to get his inheritance which is one thousand dollars. Please let him have it.”

Along the way to the bank Alvin meets a dwarf named Rascal, who has escaped from his tyrannical and abusive aunt. After a bit of conversation, Alvin shows the dwarf Chester’s note and Rascal immediately recognizes it for what it is . . . a poorly planned attempt to rob the bank. The dwarf has a better plan and unexpectedly shows up at the bank to help. The Hadleyville bank robbery was beginning of a summer crime spree that would travel across Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa and leave several corpses in its wake.

Monte Schulz has done his home work, “This Side of Jordan” is written in the vernacular of “The Jazz Age,” and the dialogue rings true to the era. However the book could stand to be tightened up a bit. There are occasional long and meandering segments of the book which do not serve the needs of the story and should have been shortened or cut entirely from the book.

Son of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, Monte Schulz has cast three misfits of society to fill the pages of his novel. Alvin, much like his father’s creation, Charlie Brown, doesn’t quite know where he fits in the world, but that’s as far as the comparison will go. As the summer goes on, Alvin realizes that his life on the other side of the river wasn’t exactly what he thought it might be, and just like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” comes to realize “There’s no place like home.”

ISBN 978-1-60699-296-8, Fantagraphics Books, © 2009, Hardcover, 320 pages, $22.99

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