by Julie Morse
Caleb J. Ross explores the nihilistic underbelly culture of the American Midwest in his latest novel I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin. It is a reverse coming-of-age story in which Jackson Jacoby and the friends he makes each attempt to uncover a childhood they never had. Jackson embarks on a road trip from Kansas to Delaware in search ofa mother who is looking for her son, Kevin Mason. Jackson is lost and ferociously defensive, yet aching to be nurtured.
The novel is full of abandonment and desperation. Jackson wears both these qualities valiantly and his traveling companions – either physically disfigured or motherless – all contain a similar despair.
Jackson’s social circle consists of his mentally ill Uncle Marve and Creg who are both members of the farthest edges of society. Creg spends his days watching telenovelas in search of his mother who abandoned him to become a Mexican soap star. Uncle Marve is an unhygienic yet prosaic Vietnam vet who totes around a metal detector. Jackson is estranged from his mother, his father is dead, and Uncle Marve is the sole source of what comfort Jackson has left.
Throughout the novel, Ross repeatedly retreats to the fantastical plot of Gina, an imaginary prostitute or “lot lizard” whose work never strays from truck stops and diners. Jackson expounds that he and Gina are in business together selling body appendages to “The World of Human Oddities”, a place that “Every sad truck driver, every disillusioned vacationing family member, every reader of weekly supermarket tabloids, all knew of.”
Ross flaunts his characters like sordid guests on Sarah Jesse Rafael rather than the vulnerable and debilitated people they really are. Jackson is appointed as their deranged leader struggling on his own quest to pretend to be somebody’s son.
I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin is a study on the repercussions of abandonment. Ross argues the significance of family and whether or not having one determines a person’s worth. Jackson’s dream is be a son and he attracts others who embody a similar, ruthless yearning. Creg, Roy, Robert and Jackson all wander until they arrive face-to-face with what they thought they were looking for. But like so often when we soul search, we just end up with a reconfirmation of the beliefs we had all along.
Jackson faces a series of capricious events on his journey. He meets Roy, a cabinetmaker, who has fetus-in-fetu, a rare condition where an unborn twin is stuck inside the stomach. There is Robert, a pill-head bodybuilder who forces Jackson to videotape him beating up a homeless man. As he gets closer to Delaware, he meets Bradley Swanson, another Kevin impersonator, who brings just as much bad luck as the rest. One night, Swanson tattoos a swastika on Jackson’s face while he sleeps – an omen of Jackson’s inevitable defeat upon reaching Delaware. Eventually the two run into Robert and the three go to Kevin’s house in an effort to dupe his ‘mother’ into believing that one of them really is Kevin.
The trip ends with Jackson’s inevitable return to Kansas. It is unclear if the book is a tribute to the underclass of America or rather an account of an adrenaline addict. I Didn’t Mean To Be Kevin is literature that falls in line with the dirty, drug and sex-ridden films of Gus Van Sant and Harmony Korine who romanticize the grime and desolation of America’s working-class. “Validation is a basic need in all of us. If you don’t get it as a kid, you try getting it as a teenager. If you don’t get it as a teenager, you try getting it as a twenty-two year old deformed, vagabond.” Jackson says – a sentiment that steamrolls the book beginning to end.
Julie Morse is a contributing writer and freelance photographer based in New England. Visit her online at http://juliemorse.tumblr.com/