This fiery autobiographical novel captures a pivotal week or two in the life of fourteen-year-old Jack Gantos, as the author reveals the moment he began to slide off track as a kid who in just a few years would find himself locked up in a federal penitentiary for the crimes portrayed in the memoir Hole in My Life. Set in the Fort Lauderdale neighborhood of his family’s latest rental home, The Trouble in Me opens with an explosive encounter in which Jack first meets his awesomely rebellious older neighbor, Gary Pagoda, just back from juvie for car theft. Instantly mesmerized, Jack decides he will do whatever it takes to be like Gary. As a follower, Jack is eager to leave his old self behind, and desperate for whatever crazy, hilarious, frightening thing might happen next. But he may not be as ready as he thinks when the trouble in him comes blazing to life.
Gantos is one of the many authors who is an automatic read for me. I’ve read every book he’s ever published and heard him speak about his writing many times, most recently at Simmons last month. He is hilarious in person and his books always make me laugh out loud, even when the subject matter is not necessarily funny. In this new book, we see just how deeply Gantos longed to be someone else and understand more clearly how he could end up, soon after the events of this book, smuggling drugs and going to prison.
Young Jack Gantos is a liar, an “okay” kid who spent a lot of time thinking about “mindless junk.” He could fake that he was cruel, but generally felt really bad about things afterwards. He’s introspective and insightful, often pouring out his thoughts to his diary. Jack refers to his father as a “mouth bully” who uses “salty” language to insult Jack as a way to toughen him up. His mother is pregnant. His older sister is pretty much perfect. Something falls into place (or maybe out of place) in Jack the day he unintentionally (but predictably) gets blasted by a fireball of his own creation. “I love fire,” he thinks. It’s on this day that he meets Gary Pagoda, the neighbor boy recently sprung from another stint in juvie. Jack instantly wants to be like him. He has this intense feeling that he is suddenly different from who he’s been, that his old self needs to be gone for good, and that he should be Gary’s follower. His first time hanging out with Gary involves a game with gasoline in a pool and M-80s. For many, this would be the perfect time to reconsider this new friendship and split, but Jack throws himself into his new role as Gary’s punching bag and flunky. But Jack, mildly terrified, plunges in to this new friendship–and into a pool of fire.
What follows are a few weeks of increasingly dangerous and stupid hijinks from Jack and Gary, most of which involve fire. Jack is so utterly desperate to figure out if this version of himself is the right one. He often talks about feeling lost, wanting to be led, feeling deeply dissatisfied and uncomfortable in his own skin. Gantos writes:
“…When I was young I was exactly who I said I was, and did what I thought was right to do. Then as I got older I left that true self behind and began to know myself only through the eyes of the people around me. I reshaped myself and made it easier for everyone to think I was doing okay because I learned to do just okay things. But I wasn’t okay. I was lost. Still, I loved the word okay. It was a magic word that cast a paralyzing spell over my parents while I was busy searching to become the opposite of okay.”
This is kind of the bottom line of The Trouble in Me: Who am I and how can I appear to be okay when I’m anything but? We see Jack run toward bad choices because he’s so eager to be led. We see him make crappy decisions and see that deep down he struggles with these choices and feelings, but he desperately wants to be someone. And being himself—whatever or whoever that is—never feels like enough. Not at 14 and certainly not a few years later when we meet him again in Hole in My Life. Gary Pagoda may set off or intensify Jack’s feelings of the trouble in himself, but the feeling remains long after Gary is gone. Gantos writes about the time after his few weeks with Gary. By the time he got to high school, he didn’t care what happened to him. He dropped out of school, moved with his family to Puerto Rico, and then moved back to Florida, where he quickly made a mess of things again. He finally feels in charge of his own life when he moves into a welfare hotel and meets up with the guys who will go on to lead him to his next—and biggest—trouble. A funny, honest, and uncomfortable look at who we find when we go looking for our selves.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/01/2015