Shreve’s got a pretty sweet gig for now- sure, he’s in juvi, but he makes a pretty penny by peddling contraband to his fellow inmates. The way he figures, he can coast along, leave with more than he came in, and get back to his little brother. Then he gets a cellmate, Jack, a shy boy with six fingers on each hand and a whole host of secrets, and Jack has some creepy folk after him. When Jack displays a power Shreve can’t explain, he knows they have to get out before those interested parties can find a way to take him. Getting away, though, isn’t as hard as staying free, or knowing what’s right.
I have to admit, when I first got my hands on this, I was hesitant, purely because I wasn’t really digging the prospect of a book set largely in a juvenile detention facility. Then I actually started reading it, and it could have been set anywhere and I still would have been fully immersed.
From the very first page, Shreve’s voice just grabs you, and never lets go. It’s a voice rich with slang, the language of incarcerado, as one of the guards calls it. It’s a hard-boiled prison book, and the fact that the contraband isn’t the strictly illegal type doesn’t actually lessen the stakes- or the ugliness- of those bound inside. Sure, there’s an element of humor to it- I mean, they’re using classic spy drop moves to deliver Skittles and Blow Pops- but there’s also something very sharp edged, something that subtly layers through as a reminder that half the kids in juvi will graduate, not to freedom, but to far harsher imprisonments. It’s not so much a parody of those adult dangers but a foreshadowing of them.
Shreve is a smart-ass, someone pretty much incapable of quitting while he’s ahead, whose mouth runs away with him at the worst possible times, a pragmatist who understands how to work the system and has no compunctions against doing so. He needs the good favor of the kids he’s supplying, mostly because he needs their protection against the times he smarts off just a little too far. From his attitude, from his easy cynicism, it’s not hard to see him in juvi. BUT- and this is wonderful- there’s also the part of Shreve that desperately misses his little brother, that worries about him constantly. There’s the part of Shreve that misses the girlfriend he hasn’t heard from, the vulnerable goodness that’s somehow managed to survive against the obstacles in life, incarcerado and free alike. There’s the part of Shreve that can reach out to a scared new boy, and be willing to help when he recognizes the danger. Shreve could be safe if he just didn’t interfere, if he just kept his head down and served his time.
But of course, keeping his head down wasn’t what landed Shreve in juvi in the first place.
Jack’s character is, in many respects, more straightforward than Shreve, but also in a way more complicated. Shreve grew up in a hell he could at least influence to some extent; there were obstacles he could work around, he could manipulate things to at least make the best of crap situations. Jack just had hell. He’s almost painfully sweet, shy and wounded and battered by his experiences, and he clutches at that first, tenuous offer of friendship like a lifeline. He’s remarkably self-contained, so the places where he’s most interesting are, for me at least, the places where he loses that control. Self-composure is frequently a mask, something polite and affected. That loss of control is a brilliant flash much closer to who we truly are.
It’s somewhat indicative of YA fiction that most adults (not all, admittedly, but most) are categorized by both characters ands readers as either useless or antagonistic. They’re either background at best or they’re obstacles. That’s true for many of the adults in this book, but there are also a few who inhabit a more nebulous categorization. Booth, in particular, stands out. He’s a guard at the detention center, someone who delights in being a bit of a bully, but also a bit of an enabler, someone who hovers between Person of Authority and Wicked Uncle in many respects. Our first impression of him is a solid one- someone so meticulously put together that the ritual becomes its own form of intimidation, someone who threatens a great deal more than he enforces. It’s like the big, burly man who slaps the nightstick into his hand even as he winks at you. The threat, the danger, is there, and he doesn’t want you to forget it for a moment, but you also get the sense he’d rather not ever have to deliver that promised trouble. He’s an interesting character, part obstacle, part scenery, part almost-ally, and yet he also becomes an intriguingly sympathetic character.
There are other adults who make appearances of course, and they run a gamut of impressions that can bewilder the reader almost as much as the teenage boys trying to understand who they can trust. Most of the adults are little more than impressions, brief encounters that aren’t meant to linger, and yet those impressions are so well-painted that despite less than a page of contact, we find ourselves hoping that some of them will work their way back into the course of things.
The ending (no spoilers, I promise, you’re safe) is a bit abrupt, and even after re-reading it, I’m not sure if that’s because I was so absorbed in the book that reaching the last page was that much of a shock, or it’s because it’s genuinely a sudden ending. There’s certainly more to come- there are many, MANY things that have not been answered, and these characters have much more to discover about themselves and what they can do, as well as what they can and can’t have, and I definitely look forward to more of Shreve and Jack.
The Twelve-Fingered Boy, by John Hornor Jacobs, out in February 2013!
Until next time~