Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rocks In the Belly by Jon Bauer

Rocks In The Belly
Jon Bauer
Scribe 2010

This is an unpleasant book. It is a harrowing read that may result in a feeling of despondency for the reader.
It is the story of a boy and a man, the same person at age eight and at age 28. It is told in intersecting chapters in the first person. He is an only child in a family who cares for foster children and when the family fosters a child called Robert his jealousy becomes unmanageable. The story of the eight year old's psychological decline as a child is echoed in his behavior, when, as a 28 year old he returns home to care for his mother.
The reader is acquainted with the mother only through her son's voice. When we meet her she is already suffering from a cancerous tumor that is expanding in her brain. She is fading in and out of lucidity and the reader, like her son, is sometimes left wondering exactly how compos mentis she is - or isn't. She experiences moments of clarity which are a shock to her son.
There are echoes of MJ Hyland in this book - her most recent novel This Is How is the story of a young man struggling with his guilt. There was an effective banality in her writing - a young man skirting his emotions, just as Bauer's unnamed protagonist does.
The childish voice of the eight year old is engaging and resonant. The childish justifications, interpretations ring true.
"I cry a lot in bed now and I’ve been thinking about it and decided I cry for two reasons 1. I don’t know why we’re here. Humans. Which makes me really sad."
The 28 year old seeks to escape his situation with drink, drugs and sex. His barely suppressed anger arises in a horrific and violent incident later in the book.
As the story progresses it becomes clear there is no happy ending. The damage has been done and as it draws to a close the tragedy is heightened.
Even as I write this review I can feel the book in my guts, slightly queasy with the horrible recognition that Jon Bauer has written extremely well about human nature, suffering, thwarted childhood and fear of death. Pain and suffering - a couple of givens in our lives.
Many of us read to reinforce strange notions of a world of joy, light and irreverence. I like a book that slams the wind out of me, leaves me doubled over and gasping. This is what I find life affirming and Bauer, who is in Australia on a Distinguished Talent visa, has done this effectively.

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