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“I think I belonged to the last generation of kids that could play outside,” young Jack Witcher tells us in the opening pages of Stephen Wetta’s new coming-of-age novel, If Jack’s in Love. Jack means this literally, in the sense that he and his neighbors in 1960s Richmond, Va., could spend hours out of the sight of adults, playing — and causing trouble — in the woods and creeks near their homes. But the line also serves as an epitaph of sorts for a bygone world in which kids were left to develop their own moral sense, free from the panoptic gaze of today’s helicopter parents who hover at the edges of their children’s every play date and keep a tight rein on the electronic tether of smartphones and iPods.
Wetta, who was the same age as his 12-year-old narrator in the summer of 1967, when If Jack’s in Love takes place, came of age in that freer world of childhood, and by any objective standard, he suffered for it. Wetta dropped out of high school, lost years of his life to alcohol and drugs, and, even after he sobered up and went back to school, eventually earning a Ph.D. from NYU, he spent more than a decade toiling at low-paying adjunct teaching jobs that at one point briefly landed him in jail for tax evasion. Now, though, at the ripe old age of 56, a newly minted full-time professor at New York’s Hunter College, Wetta has put his fallow years to use in a remarkable first novel that captures the slow unraveling of a working-class Southern family during the Summer of Love.
Wetta, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Richmond native James Branch Cabell, a largely forgotten writer of early 20th-century fantasy novels, is well versed in the Southern literary tradition, but says he doesn’t see himself as a truly Southern writer. “Aside from Cabell and, of course, Faulkner,” he explains in an interview, “I can’t say I feel much of an affinity for Southern literature, especially the more contemporary writers,” whom he sees as overly fond of self-consciously Southern Gothic touches. For If Jack’s in Love, he says he tapped into a different American literary tradition, that of the precocious child narrator in the mold of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.
Jack Witcher, with his outsider status and his unerring eye for social detail, is indeed a descendant of Huck and Holden, with the crucial twist that Jack aches to join the respectable establishment of suburban El Dorado Hills that has branded him and his family “trash.” Therein lies the central conflict of the novel. Jack is a Witcher, a member of the local nogoodnik clan whose house is forever surrounded by cast-off car parts and bathroom fixtures collected from junk yards. “Witchers ain’t snitchers,” his father tells him, and Jack, who feels deep loyalty to his family, labors mightily to abide by this outcast code. But as a straight-A student who has fallen in love with Myra Joyner, daughter of one of the neighborhood’s best families, he also yearns to escape the semi-poverty and coarseness he has grown up with. “I had to slug it out with kids all the time, because of my name, because of my house, because my mother looked like a trout,” Jack says with characteristic humor. “How I longed for adulthood, when I would be surrounded by civilized people who would inquire, ‘How are you today, Mr. Witcher?’”
Jack’s loyalty is tested early on in a riveting scene in which Jack’s father, who has just been fired from his latest job, almost runs over a neighbor’s dog and challenges the neighbor, Mr. Kellner, to a fight when Kellner accuses him of trying to kill his dog. The two men square off in the woods, Jack’s hill-country father and the pipe-smoking, jazz-listening Kellner, ringed by hooting neighborhood kids, until Jack’s father pummels the other man, sending Kellner “flopp[ing] to the ground like a tumble of clothes.” The scene crackles on the page because, already in this opening scene, Wetta has succeeded in putting his reader inside Jack’s head. Jack wants his dad to win the fight, but at the same time, because he is smart and bears a most un-Witcher-like sensitivity, he knows that the more his father bloodies respectable Mr. Kellner, the more he is confirming the Witchers’ reputation as hillbilly trash. “We marched back to our house,” Jack says when the fight is over, “victorious but unpopular, like Wehrmacht infantrymen goose-stepping into Prague.”
Wetta, whose father was an IRS auditor and frustrated painter, says If Jack’s in Love isn’t in any strict sense autobiographical, though in a revealing afterword he describes himself as feeling “on thin ice” socially as a child. Wetta was a Roman Catholic in a working-class Protestant neighborhood, and a reader in a world largely devoid of books. “I had the deep longing of the outsider, the genuine outsider, to be an insider,” he writes. It is in this subtle, more emotional way that Wetta relates to his central character. If Jack’s in Love offers a love story between Jack and Myra Joyner as well as a mystery plot of a kind revolving around whether Jack’s volatile older brother, Stan, murdered Myra’s older brother, Gaylord. But what drives the book is Jack and his tortured sense of loyalty. Even as the police investigation into the disappearance of Gaylord Joyner closes in on Stan, Jack is carrying on a clandestine romance with Gaylord’s little sister, Myra, exchanging secret messages ferried by a mutual friend. Sooner or later, the reader senses, Jack will have to choose between the outcast Witchers and the establishment Joyners, until the book offers him a third choice: escaping the confines of El Dorado Hills for the wider world. “A new social concept was birthing in my brain, and I had a momentary feeling of superiority to El Dorado Hills,” Jack says when a neighbor tells him she finds the suburban enclave provincial. “Outside, beyond the city limits, were other places, other towns: New York, San Francisco, Dallas.”
Like Jack, Wetta felt drawn to the world beyond Richmond’s city limits, and after kicking drugs and alcohol and finishing his undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, he moved to New York in the late 1980s. More than 20 years later, living in Brooklyn with his girlfriend, children’s author Julie Winterbottom, Wetta seems ambivalent about his erstwhile hometown, saying that Richmond’s stultifying social stratification is balanced by a deep sense of community and history. “It’s a very enclosed place,” he says. “Most people never leave Richmond physically. There’s a sense there that Richmond is the center of everything. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Wetta came north to pursue his doctoral studies, but always at the back of his mind he wanted to be a writer. Early on, while drifting through odd jobs as a printer and hospital orderly, he published a few short stories, but then he suffered a creative block that lasted until the mid-1990s when he sat down to write his dissertation on Cabell and found himself, to his surprise, sneaking time from his scholarly work to write fiction. “I wrote a dissertation and I wrote a novel, but that broke the writer’s block,” he says. “And I’ve been writing ever since.”
Out of that initial return to fiction came the novel Gone, set in the 1950s about a country musician who moves to New York and gets caught up in the Beat Generation. In 2003, Wetta sold the novel, retitled Real Gone, to indie publisher Welcome Rain, which heartbreakingly went out of business the same month Wetta’s novel was to appear. (Welcome Rain is by now back in business, and Real Gone, though still unpublished, maintains a ghost presence on Amazon.) Undaunted, Wetta kept writing, working as an adjunct instructor to pay the bills. In 2004, according to his version of events, one of the colleges where he was teaching stopped deducting state taxes from his paychecks. He let the omission slide, enjoying the extra income, but then, in 2010, he was charged with owing the state more than $11,000 in back taxes.
In all, Wetta says he spent a grand total of twelve hours in jail and has long since paid back the state, but news of the case, gleefully reported in the New York Post, hit just as If Jack’s in Love was being picked up by mainstream publisher Penguin Books. Rather than hide this embarrassing episode, Wetta and his editor, Amy Einhorn, chose to play it up in a self-deprecating author’s bio that portrays Wetta, looking dapper in a porkpie hat and upturned collar, as a serial screw up who somehow stumbled into life as a college professor and author.
In truth, while Wetta admits he’s “been around the block a few times,” in conversation he comes across as a thoughtful, ambitious novelist with a hard drive full of books he hopes to someday publish. So far, If Jack’s in Love isn’t doing him many favors. Published quietly in October, it attracted a strong review from the Wall Street Journal and near-total silence everywhere else. This seems unfair. The book isn’t perfect. Toward the end, like the proverbial dog that caught the fire truck, Wetta seems unsure what to do with the many strands of plot he has weaved together, and the final chapters peter out in what amounts to an extended epilogue. Still, despite the book’s occasionally creaky plotting, Jack Witcher comes alive on the page, by turns soulful and impish, bursting with love and longing. It may have taken Stephen Wetta 56 years to learn to write like a twelve-year-old, but it was worth the wait.