Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Company of Tatters by Jack Beltane

I kind of hated high school. I resented my one-stoplight town and I convinced myself that my many talents (I could play “Dust in the Wind” on guitar and could read books real fast) were being squandered on these farmers and Juggalos (actual demographics taken from my 2009 self-conducted census!). The drive to leave, to be anywhere else, was maddening. So, when at the end of A Company of Tatters I realized that I was actually nostalgic for the days when going to Walmart seemed exotic, I was a little shocked. Jack Beltane’s A Company of Tatters is an intricate dissection of what it means to be a senior in high school, made vivid by a near-tangible setting and an indulgent sense of introspection. It’s hard to not want it all back – even the embarrassing bits  – after reading such a dedication to that time.

I was surprised by how much I had forgotten, or, more likely, blocked out. Remember the weird weight every decision carried? Picking a college dictated how often you’d see your friends and family, your course for the rest of your life. Who let me, who put as much thought into picking a t-shirt in the morning (though, to my credit, this was pretty hard because every article of clothing had to accurately represent my entire system of beliefs), decide this!?  Now, after revisiting my not-so-distant youth with Jack and his company, I am both impressed with and baffled by the strange, almost calloused resolution with which I faced high school. How did I function knowing that most of my friendships would soon be over or irreparably changed – that despite the inordinate gravity I cast over every interaction, it was all pretty silly and this was just a four year stint in some weird building? Things that remind me of my own resiliency are always nice, but more importantly – Beltane reminds us that those interactions mattered. Things are not any less meaningful just because they happened to us when we wore silly shoes (I wore Converse to prom??) or parted our hair the other way.

I think there is a tendency for people, especially those of us who had experiences that weren’t perfect, to shrug off high school memories. We’re likely to make excuses for the odd things we did, for the things we fought for that seemed, at the time, paramount to our existence. When talking to my friends, I sometimes get the sense that we feel that we are our best selves now, and that any previous self must be ignored or, at best, forgiven. To admit to having been anyone other than who we are right now is a great weakness, somehow. Though, if we didn’t feel that way, we’d probably fall apart. That’s why A Company of Tatters is so effective and bittersweet: It is an unapologetic ode to selves gone by – a raw celebration of youth. Though Jack, Tobie, Sammy, and Ally are young, their feelings are violently pure. These characters, with their immense capacities to love and forgive, impressed and reassured the hell out of me. That was my best self once, and that’s okay.

While the relationships are super-charged and crackling with intensity, they aren’t unrealistic, and they’re definitely not melodramatic. I think this story in any other hands could have been a catastrophe, but Beltane balances it all with ease.

Not only is Beltane an expert of liberating forgotten emotion, he crafts settings that shine. His descriptions made me nostalgic (seeing a trend here?) for a time and place I’ve never been. The dull murmur in the glistening mall food court, the quiet dark of a suburban backyard in the wintertime – all enhanced by a playlist of songs referenced throughout. It was mesmerizing – I finished a great majority of the novel in one day.

I was only drawn out of the story twice: It took me a while to memorize everyone’s names (if I took a break from reading, I needed some time to become reacquainted) and, at times, it seemed that Jack was a little too clueless. Was he really unaware that Ally was in on the King of Hearts dance setup until page 236!? Though, maybe, having grown accustomed to Jack’s clear-sighted retrospection, I was used to him having all the answers.

I am reading over this review and I’m amused; Most of this was about myself, but that’s what Jack Beltane’s novel forces you to do – to reminisce, to accept your strangest self, and to make us want to share our own war stories. A Company of Tatters is an absorbing and heartbreaking read that makes even those of us who refused to wear real shoes to prom feel welcomed.

Visit jackofbells.com to purchase the book and listen to the accompanying soundtrack!

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