every bitter thing

There is a moment early on in Hardy Jones’ new novel Every Bitter Thing where the hero, a twelve-year old boy name Wesley, accepts a gift from another boy, Rubin, who he very much wants to befriend. The gift is a drawing of a swastika, but it might as well be a switchblade for the danger the two project upon it.

He held it up. The swastika sat square in the middle, about to leap off the sheet. “Take it with you. Just don’t let your dad see it. Mine hates that I can draw a swastika. He flips out and starts cursing in Spanish.” Not only was this a gift, but contraband.

This exchange between friends will be replayed in way more serious terms as the novel moves into its third act, but what we see early is the illustration of an interesting idea: to what degree can a secret be empowering? Like most twelve-year olds, Wesley doesn’t have his own money or transportation; he doesn’t control the spaces he lives in(he has to keep his bedroom door open 24/7); he can’t prepare his own food and, most importantly, his very thoughts and desires seem to be policed by his ubiquitous father. It is in this context that the exchange of the swastika drawing between Wesley and Rubin is both a gesture and a contract of tremendous power. A lesser novel might stand pat here, create a world in which Wesley and Rubin’s friendship empowers them to levels previously unrealized, but Jones refuses such sentimentality. Instead, the novel turns this friendship inside out: where fraternal trust once offered symmetry, now it is the crooked thing; where sexual naivete was guarded, now it is preyed upon; and where once the boys held the secret of a swastika drawing—in reality not dangerous at all—now they come to share the secret of something else, utterly taboo, and completely and realistically dangerous.

Set in Florida, in 1981, Every Bitter Thing is told by Wesley Royal, an overweight adolescent being raised by an overbearing, racist father, and an exhausted, patient mother. In the novel they simply go by “Dad” and “Mom”, and herein we see early the nearly sentence-by-sentence difficulty of trying to write from the point of view of a twelve-year old. The trick with such a narrator, it seems to me, is to find a voice that avoids affecting preciousness on the one hand, while still maintaining a sense of wonder on the other. Such books as Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Padgett Powell’s masterpiece Edisto strike that balance in the voices of their young storytellers, where as perhaps a book like Tony Early’s Jim the Boy crosses that line of believability. Either way, what is striking and original about Jones’ narrator is the way in which he seems so different than so many contemporary adolescent narrators—he is neither precocious nor sarcastic. Instead he lives mostly in silence.

The story line of the novel essentially follows Wesley’s journey to become a man as his father imagines what becoming a man means. In his typical overbearing nature, Wesley’s father, after watching a Bruce Lee film, decides to enroll Wesley in a tae kwon do class. There he meets other kids, also trying to become men, and most importantly, it is there that he meets the enigmatic Rubin Lopez, a black belt, and several years his senior. Their friendship and Wesley’s advancement from white to yellow belt, all under the relentless gaze of his father, take up the bulk of the action of the book.

For a novel set in Florida, Every Bitter Thing is remarkably without the trappings, the furniture—if you will—of typical Floridian literature: there are no beaches to speak of, just as there are no alligators, swamps, or boats. Any aesthetic that might lend itself to some cheap Jimmy Buffet world, where relaxation is religion, where space and time are limitless, simply doesn’t exist here. Instead, it is replaced by the exact opposite: the limitations in Wesley’s world are limitless, and domestic spaces are constantly described in terms of their claustrophobia.

Our dining room table was a long dark brown rectangle with extensions at each end. We never used the extensions, because that would make the table twelve feet and it was already six and took up most of the room. A narrow path ran from the kitchen past the head of the table, where Dad always sat, to the back hallway that split in two. To the left was Mom and Dad’s room, straight ahead was the bathroom, and to the right was my room: a small square box the same size as Mom and Dad’s room.

What is important to notice here is that this is just one of many of Jones’ use of interior description. Added up, these descriptions lend themselves thematically and build toward the novel’s climactic moment—a moment of utter fear and helplessness that I cannot describe here—which will occur in a terrifyingly tight space. A space that Wesley, to be fair, has feared for a hundred pages.

To call Jones’ novel a coming-of-age story is to discredit the amount of confusion Wesley contains by the book’s end. However, there is a modicum of understanding between boy and father that rounds the story and offers, if not a conclusion, a place to exit. Jones allows us to walk away. Listen: For a novel this intense, you’ll be grateful for the fresh air.

reviewed by George McCormick, Cameron University, Lawton, Oklahoma

Hardy Jones. Every Bitter Thing. Black Lawrence Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9825204-1-3.