Monday, March 21, 2011

Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis

Title: Jack's Return Home
Author: Ted Lewis
Publisher: Doubleday and Company Inc (1970)

Michael and I are continuing our joint posts this month with a selection from the Old World. You'll want to surf on over to It Rains... You Get Wet (NorCal's March theme by coincidence) for the film review of Get Carter which is the movie adaptation of Jack's Return Home.

I'm a little embarrassed to say it, but I had a hard time following this book. On the one hand, that's great - I hate to be spoon-fed by an author; on the other hand there is a limit to the amount of British slang a person wants to google in any one sitting. :) But seriously, this is not a cookie cutter book with every little detail served up in annoyingly obvious fashion. I must also admit that I was never able to let go of my initial perception regarding Jack's feelings for his brother, it made it very hard for me to get into the book from the get-go and I was never able to get over it. I was able to entertain the notion that it was a deliberate choice by the author. But before I go into that, let's summarize:

Jack Carter is a modestly successful member of an organized crime outfit in London. I sort of got an Enforcer type of vibe for his job description but it's never detailed. He returns to his hometown after his brother's death. He and his brother, Frank, were estranged but the circumstances of the death are suspicious and Jack is determined to investigate. His bosses ask him to let it go but he politely refuses. The book opens as Carter is taking the train home. The atmosphere for the entire book is set via Carter's descriptions, his mood, and his thoughts on going back to his childhood home. To describe it as grim is a slightly comical understatement.

It's not immediately clear that Carter is a Grade A Asshole but Lewis doesn't keep that close to the vest for long. In fact, Lewis' deft characterization of Carter was the most impressive part of this book. Jack's mannerisms and actions are perfectly done. Not once did I ever doubt that he would do a thing that he did. Now, I may have been annoyed at his arogance or his deliberately obtuse thinking but it never felt unnatural. The most intriguing aspect of his character was his charm. This guy is a jizzwad of epic proportions but I was seduced by him EVERY TIME he put on his agreeable hat. And holy damn that's an awesome feeling as a reader. Even though I know just what kind of person Carter is and exctly what he's trying to do I'm still glad to be there and almost wishing I was on the receiving end of his con. That is the kind of writing that makes me grin like a fool because I'm just so happy to experience it. I want to read the book again just to study the craft of how Lewis did this.

Carter attempts to discover why his brother might have been killed before trying to find whodunit. He interrogates his niece, his brother's girlfriend and co-workers attempting to discover if anything was wrong. He also has run-ins with the local gangsters and even his London bosses trying to get him to go home. In the course of this, we learn about his relationship with his brother as Carter sifts through his past. Carter didn't think much of his brother and he formed his low opinion pretty early on. It was this that stuck in my mind from the beginning and kept me from really sympathizing with Carter's mission. Carter has the tenacity of a pitbull and he won't stop until he can bring his brother's killer down. This is normally a very easy plot to get behind. And the fact that Carter seems more personally affronted by the audacity of someone killing his brother is fitting to his character rather than off-putting. However, he held his brother adamently and obviously in contempt so why would he think anyone else would do differently? Why does he suppose it's thought that he would even care if something happened to Frank.

Jack recounts a memory of being a young kid with his brother. It's a telling moment between the brothers and possibly the moment Jack was recruited into gang life. This was probably my favorite scene in the book even though it was a flashback. If my interpretation is correct, then Lewis had several layers of information being served up in the billiards scene. Besides learning quite a bit about Frank and Jack, when the memory had played out, my first thought was that Jack had killed his brother with contempt. His life had been a precedent for disregarding his brother, others just followed suit.

"Come on, Yukker [Jack]," he'd said. "Leave the pansy to his knitting circle."
I'd looked down at Frank. He'd made no attempt to get up. He'd been looking at the spots on his handkerchief, and at Albert's words he'd looked up at me but he'd already guessed what I was going to do.

How prophetic was this moment? Did Frank only guess what Jack would do in that moment or had he seen the whole of their futures played out. In other words, had he seen his death at the hand of his brother's choices? It's in this moment that you realize Carter is a natural born asshole. And it's not like he apologized for it. Nor did Lewis, I suppose. It's more of that excellent characterization. Jack was who he was and you could deal with it or fuck yourself but it wasn't changing anything about how he acted. I kept thinking, something is going to endear this man to me but absolutely not. This is not one of those stories. Still, even some of his asshole moments could be charming. (Sort of like, well, yeah, he's an asshole but he's our asshole and, darn it, don't it just give you the shivers?)

Gumboots looked at me for a long time.
"Clever sod, aren't you?" he said.
"Comparatively," I said, giving him his look back.

He's one pesty bugger, too. I was flipping through the book and found a note that I wrote while he was interrogating his niece and the note said: At this point I'm sick of his questions. One thing about his questions and his poking - combined with his manner - is that, as a reader, you're left to wonder: Is he stirring the pot or is this just his typical assholeness? Is it even possible to tell? This is what I mean when I say it's a book you have to pay attention to.

The fight scenes were awesome. I usually don't have the patience for fight scenes in books (I seem to prefer mine via a visual medium) but I was right there with these fights and enjoying myself. Lewis has a way of describing the action so that it is immediately clear in only a few words. If I have to read a full page just to get the minute details of how one character lays out another you can be sure I'm skipping to the end. Additionally, Carter is violent when he feels he needs to be and he doesn't hold with Revelatory Speeches. If he has something to say he says it but, if not, he waits quietly for his moment of action. After a while, though, I tired of how easily he was escaping situations. I wanted the baddies (relative term in a book like this) to get a bit more skilled. The ending made up for this in a big way so I won't complain too much.

As the plot unfolds and you learn just what it was Frank got mixed up in and who the major players were, Carter gets angrier and angrier. This was weird to me. If he had become more determined I could understand that. He's arrogant and feels he has territory and rights that ought not be infringed upon so he needs to make his point. I get that but why is he angry? Has he conveniently forgotten what kind of people he works for? 

I sat there on the chair and stared at the hall but I didn't see anything. All I saw was what was in my mind: What I was going to do to them all. For everything.

My response: For what? Who did you think you were running with? Screwing the boss's wife? Duh! On a character level it was spot on for how I saw Carter but on the story level it was just another thing that took me out of really sympathizing with his mission.

Character-wise this book was a big win for me, story-wise... well, meh, I guess. I didn't care very much about what was going on. I wonder if that's me more than the story. Gangster thugs getting all put out because the people around them act like gangster thugs has never tripped my give-o-shit meter. Perhaps if I was more familiar with the Gangster Behavior Code I would get into the stories more but, alas, gangsters are far outside my purview.

One final comment: the ending kicks ass!


  1. Another of your deft and fun book reviews, Rachel. When I read this novel, it turned out our common language was my most immediate obstacle. The vernacular of the street as it were, specifically in the Britain of 1970, permeates this tale. Even with the difficulty of figuring out what was being said by the characters, I did find myself marveling at the phrasing. Indeed, even in passages with little or no slang, it seemed like the verbs, nouns, and prepositions somehow got mixed up, but somehow still understandable. After you got used to it, that is.

    Of course, none of it would have been near as interesting without a protagonist like Jack Carter. He is somethin', huh? I give full credit to Ted Lewis for his creation. By all accounts, this was his most popular novel in his short career. I think he was successful in making me connect with Jack (even if he is an asshole, as you described him) and the world of crime he inhabits. I look at him as a shark in an ocean of prey and other predators. And that singular attribute is what separated him and his brother Frank.

    I guess looking at him like that, his reprisals against those who murdered his brother are a normal reaction for that dangerous environment. Jack couldn't leave it alone just because he didn't like his brother -- it would be seen as a weakness. Yeah, Frank was passive, but was he normal, or is Jack? In Jack's society you're either victim or Viking, plus I got the feeling as I read this that there was a bit of survivors guilt in Jack. Like Richard Stark's Parker, he's an archetype antihero. I'm closer to giving this a 4 to your 3/5 rating, though, because the author did effectively transport me to another world and involve me with someone quite unexpected... plus, that is one great ending to the novel! I became a fan of the film long before I read this so I thought I knew where it was going. Ha! Thanks so much for taking this novel and film on, Rachel.

  2. BTW, I wanted to quote from one of my favorite passages in the book. One that came early, but let you know something about the character and Ted Lewis' skill at writing:

    "I went over to where the chair was and looked into the coffin. I hadn't seen him for such a long time. Death didn't really make much difference at all; the face just re-assembled the particles of memory. And as usual when you see someone dead who you've seen alive it was impossible to imagine the corpse as being related to its former occupant."

  3. Thanks, Michael! I'm always slightly amused at how your reviews are very full of perspective and context and mine are very much in the moment. I like the variety. :)

    That vernacular was pretty heavy! I read a lot of Brit lit (most historical and current) so the rhythm and arrangement is not usually a problem for me but that vernacular was killing me. Very region-specific, and probably time period as well. But I agree with you, the writing is very well done and once you get into it it's pretty smooth.

    Again agreed on what a bang up character Carter is. I can see why this would be Lewis' most popular novel. Hard to forget a guy like Carter.

    "Jack couldn't leave it alone just because he didn't like his brother -- it would be seen as a weakness." Perfectly said! I thought he was there for himself rather than for "justice" for Frank.

    That's pretty cool that the ending was still able to be surprising for you even after seeing the film. The structure of the ending is quite different and really awesome, I think.

    I can see the 4 rating for sure but if I am vacillating between a 3 and a 4 the tie is always broken by my thoughts one whether the book would appeal to someone not normally a fan of the type; in this case I really didn't think this was the book to win over those new to crime fiction so I stuck with the 3. The only unfortunate thing about the 3 rating, for me, is that it's so wide. But, alas, that's the trouble with boiling something down to a number.

    Great quote! I can see you and I really gravitated to some of the same parts as that one stuck out for me, too. That last sentence is a fantastic observation.

    I remembered I had one other question for your regarding a difference between the book and movie. I didn't think Carter would be the type to contact the police. I saw breaking the story to the media as much more fitting to his personality and so I was curious as to why that particular change would have been made. Any thoughts?

  4. Good question. The police and justice system seem to be existing on another dimension and not really a part of Jack's world. Perhaps, because Kinnear is a higher-up (and more worthy of Jack's contempt, class-wise) he gets the police (who'll gladly put him away on whatever gets handed to them). Paice, on the other hand, gets the more personal treatment (as he's more of a peer).

    Thanks, Rachel.

  5. Excellent notion! I was so concerned with what I thought of Carter that I wasn't thinking much of what he might think of the individuals in question.