Sunday, June 26, 2011

States of Confusion by Paul Jury

States of Confusion
by Paul Jury ( Adams Media Corp.) $16.

Review by Alice Weiss

Exploiting the double meaning of the word, state, Paul Jury’s States of Confusion follows a mildly confused young man (he has just graduated from Northwestern) on a road trip through the lower 48. The form is an extended comic monologue which takes him from state to state until he ends up very much where he started. But that is not to spoil the book, the pleasure of it is that you know that’s where he will end up, even if he doesn’t. Other pleasures involve long nighttime rides risking not life and limb but speeding tickets, driving cars that stall in the middle of the highway, and endless attempts to find an electric socket with which to charge his cell phone at night: outside ice machines, coke machines, garages and sports stadiums (which information I must admit I filed away just in case), and places to sleep in the car when a friend’s bed in not available. The essence of that last bit, is that the car has to be stopped, brake in place and away from discovery by the police.

Encounters with the last provide us with some mild suspense but the essence of a story that depends on the form and structure of the Odyssey is that Odysseus always wriggles out of his scrapes and comes home to Ithaca . And there are always gods and mentors to lead him along the way. Jury’s mentors, however, are boys very like himself, college chums whose charm, for him, is that they have jobs and he doesn’t and they tell him exactly what he knows already. He wants to stay in the upper middle class and the question is how to do that even if he isn’t a computer whiz or the son of a wealthy industrialist. They tell him he has to do what he loves and that is what he is already doing. No not driving a car all around the country, but writing a blog every night so all his buddies, oh, and his grandmother are appraised of his adventures, and can get him out of some of the more demanding scrapes.

Also, he has a girl friend who he has to decide whether he wants to marry or to abandon. I kept rooting for her to find someone else, some one more capable of intimacy. That is the other thing about the book. Although it’s written in the first person and concerns the two most important issues in our young lives, work and love, we never get the sense that we know his heart or the shape and structure of his ambition and as we read further into the book we never really learn much about them. I suppose I am asking too much of the comic form. Those one-two punch sentences are designed to distance you from the writer and his feelings, rather than reveal. True comedy of course reveals in spite of the teller’s fears, Mr. Jury never comes close.

Possibly the most grievous flaw is that in his travels from state to state he never observes anyone different from him, or explores the landscape of lives around him. We rarely meet anyone not comfortably a part of the world he is supposedly traveling around to see. In Indiana for example, he visits a fellow grad who has become a manager in his father’s company. His evenings are spent in a bar watching his union employees cruise around the Indianapolis Civil War monument in loud cars driving around making loud noises to impress the women walking on the sidewalk. They are guys who make a “decent wage actually,” J.J. (his Indianapolis friend)said, “But I swear some of my guys immediately dump two thirds of it into new sound systems or louder engines for their cars.” J.J. admits these are “not exactly the type of people I grew up with” but offers, nonetheless to introduce the writer so he can talk to one of them. Jury says he “politely declined.” I admit to wishing he would have. It might have made the statement which ends the section a little less cringe worthy: “They’re some of the happiest people I’ve ever met.”

The book is artless in a kind of charming way and there is one encounter Jury describes toward the end of his journey which comes alive a little and provides him with a telling metaphor for the journey he has taken. Frank the wrecker driver (“a mostly defunct profession which is part tow-truck driver, part ambulance, and part hearse) rescues Jury from a car breakdown deep in rural Montana. The nearest garage is hours away so Jury gets to actually hear the stories the guy has to tell about a life very different from the one Northwestern grads expect to have. The essence of it is driving back and forth around the immense stretches of the rural west picking up stranded drivers, or parts of cars and bodies.

It’s of course the driving around part that serves as a kind of metaphor for Jury and he does seem to recognize the similarity between Frank’s life and his own Big Trip. But despite the upbeat ending (he goes to Los Angeles to become a writer.) the question remains: Will he turn around and land someplace or keep on forever touching down only to leave again, utterly unengaged.

***Alice Weiss is formerly from New Orleans, Louisiana, earned her living as a civil rights attorney for twenty one years, among other things, investigating and challenging the conditions of jails in parishes throughout the Atchafalaya Basin and the Bayous.

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