On the surface, Christopher Narozny’s Jonah Man screams masculinity. There’s mystery, of course, and, crime, drugs, and all-too-familiar feminine archetypes. It could easily have been just another well-written book of genre-fiction; what makes it shine is its beguiling world. Narozny’s men dance, juggle, and wear sequined costumes. They are traveling circus performers, common entertainers, and modern jesters. Like any Shakespearean fool, they are dark cynics and street-wise, suspended in a story they may already foresee as a tragedy. As Narozny suggests in his title, Jonah Man, these men are swallowed by a metaphorical whale.
The book is written from four viewpoints: Swain, a one armed juggler; Jonson, a widower and a drunk; Jonson’s son, a talented entertainer; and an inspector, who is hell-bent on solving a murder and busting a drug ring. Much of the action circles around the misdeeds of Swain and Jonson and their struggle over Jonson’s son—a boy who comes off as odd, if not other-worldly. In fact, though it might have been mentioned, it is difficult to recall the boy’s name at all. He’s just “Jonson’s son,” as if he is merely an extension—and he’s treated as such by his father.
Swain is missing his own extension, literally. He possesses a rough exterior, but the root of his persona remains quaint and innocent, a reflection of his name. (A swain is a country lad, or one who loves/admires another.) Swain’s love for Jonson’s son is a strange but platonic one. The son seems to exist in his own bubble, despite the penetrating harshness of his father, and it’s this quality—his separateness—that Swain desires to protect. This impulse belays his crime-ridden character and resonates as the only source of real redemption within the novel. It’s only in retrospect that Swain recognizes himself as special and chosen. He states, “Anything he [Swain] had managed to do, he had managed to do despite something fundamental in himself, something he couldn’t name but had spent his life disguising. A compulsion to be great. A conviction that he wasn’t up to the task.”
Swain suffers from a “Jonah complex”, an urge to fight one’s impulse towards greatness. Narozny’s characters are not heroes. Swain is addicted to a silver-blue substance that stains his gums. It’s crippling and unattractive. Jonson drinks so much that he falls down during his stage act and soils himself. These two are hot-messes trying to escape their problems, just as the biblical Jonah attempts to flee God’s call (though without large doses of narcotics). In the end, Jonah’s refusal to answer God’s call is futile. The life of a prophet is often crummy. If God conjures a whale to swallow you whole, it’s a wake-up call. At such a moment, you might fantasize about leaving, but you can never escape. Not until death.
The acknowledgements section describes Narozny as a mish-mash of Faulkner and McCarthy. I’ve never liked this style of reviewing—slapping the names of dead white guys onto a new author’s work, as a shorthand of sorts. Narozny is not Faulkner. He plays with non-linearity and writes from different perspectives but he does not use language, or stream of consciousness, in the same way. Narozny arranges his characters in edgy and rural settings; this does not make him McCarthy. I say this with the kindest intent because I think the acknowledgement blurb insinuates, but doesn’t clearly spit out: Narozny’s Jonah Man is a very American book.
The definition of modern “American literature” is an unsettled subject, but I think Narozny’s debut novel is a good candidate to represent the genre, thanks to his choice of themes: dreams and desire, but also mistakes, disappointment, fate, and transcendence. Narozny’s characters exude a jaded hopefulness, which leaves the reader with a delicate and complex impression of their aims. His characters are less interested in survival than seeing an end to something—whether they believe an end will come or not.
The world-weary expectancy that presides over Narozny’s work is vivid. Two of the most memorable characters, though minor, are a brother and sister. They have a bow and arrow act where the sister shoots apples off her brother’s head. Maybe she’ll always hit the apple, but maybe she’ll miss. He already has a few scars. Why not earn some coin in the meantime?
Part way through the novel, Narozny describes a traveling medicine show—a hoax that preys on down-on-their-luck townspeople. At each stop, the locals gather to describe their ailments and look for various cures. It’s an act of desperation, a question of, why not? It’s a poor man buying a lottery ticket. Why not? might as well be an American motto. Without it, you don’t get anywhere. It’s the question Jonah asked himself at his turning point, when he was wet, slimy, and pouty over being singled out by God. And this pervasive question—asked in desperation and hope that sings humanity—is about putting your fate in someone else’s hands. Likewise, I put my faith in Narozny’s work. It is controlled and deliberate, and the ride is beautiful. Why not read a new author? Why not read Jonah Man?