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Ted Pelton’s debut novel, Malcolm & Jack: and other famous American criminals, presents itself as something it is not, or not only, to be more precise. On the back cover, in the note preceding the text, and in the opening paragraphs of the novel, Pelton sets himself the less-than-modest task of revealing the foundations of 1960s American counterculture through an examination of 1940s subculture. He accomplishes this by fictionalizing accounts from the shadowy lives of men and women on their way to or on the decline from being household names. In a game of narrative leap frog, Pelton’s character sketches overlap as each of his famous subjects’ lives intersects with another in a tangled web of chance, crime, and subculture.
It seems every significant alternative lifestyle is accounted for — Billie Holiday gives us glimpses of drug addiction, prison culture, segregation, and lesbianism; Red (a.k.a. Malcolm Little, a.k.a. Malcolm X) gives us railway life, gang culture and hints of the fomenting Black liberation movement. Pelton’s attention to detail and incredible talent for internal monologue save these characters from becoming caricatures.
What holds the novel together, however, and pulls the plot forward, is the story line centered around Jack Kerouac. Jack is a middle-class, preppy-looking white guy struggling to break free from his own normalcy through associating with a variety of ne’er-do-wells, and an ever-delayed stint in the merchant marines.
Through the character of Jack, Pelton is able to tie the disparate elements of his historical exploration together through an extended meditation on the frustrating position of a writer in relation to history, or events of historical import. Jack meditates on his frustrations at being a constant observer, or at best a tangential participant. Jack drifts in and out of the lives of these significant historical figures and formative events, but is never at the center of them. He haggles over a prostitute with a boy who will one day become Malcolm X, gets called up by Lucien when he murders David Kammerer, doesn’t enlist to fight in WWII, but wants to tag along or stow away on a merchant marines ship and hang out in occupied France, and is a relatively silent tag-along on a journey with a Kinsey researcher from NYC to Bloomington, Indiana.
Though Jack is the thread that ties the novel together, the most realized character in the novel might just be his girlfriend and later fiancée, Edie. If Jack is frustrated by his impotence in the face of adventure, Edie understands the sources of this impotence, perhaps better than Jack himself. Where the other characters in the novel seem to be casting about looking for a sense of identity, Edie sees through it all. Her narration, which begins with a sudden shift on page 151 and lasts until the end of the section on page 188, is peppered with good Midwestern commonsense observations. At the dinner table, she watches Jack interact with her family, noting “Jack fancies himself a rebel, but in certain ways he’s very respectful of authority” (158). Where Jack is the writer struggling against his position as observer, Edie represents the writer at home with herself and in full command of her observational capacities.
At the heart of Malcolm & Jack is a long walk along a country road where nothing more eventful happens than complete transcendence. Out for a stroll, Jack is followed by a man so completely at ease with being in the world, that Jack himself is able to put away his writerly detachment and just be. For a moment, Jack experiences the world unmediated by his critical, observational mind, and finds freedom in the experience. All the characters in the book are seeking a similar sense of ease of being in their own way. Some are looking to reshape the world so that they can be accepted in it. Others, like Billie, decide to ignore every one else’s expectations. For Jack, ease comes by temporarily leaving behind destructive notions of what it means to be a writer, formed by his affiliation with Ginsburg and Burroughs.
After reaching this climax in the long ars poetica meditation, Pelton turns to a newly introduced narrator, Dick Post, looking to get out of New York and escape arrest for flashing on the Columbia campus. The narrator meets up with Jack, who here is relegated to the back seat on a cross-country road trip with a Kinsey researcher and a whole crew of unlikely companions. The conclusion of the book is filled with larger-than-life characters getting into misadventures, but saves itself from a Huckleberry Finn style, boys-will-be-boys denouement with Dick’s story of a tragic love affair with a prep school athlete, revealed slowly over the concluding section’s 58 pages.
In this final section of the book, Pelton decides to take the narration out of the hands of the novelist once again, and this time place it in the trust of a “sexual deviant” being interviewed by Dr. Kinsey. If the book has thus far highlighted the difficult position of writer-as-observer that Jack faces, this final sections seems to be a commentary on social scientists taking over the role of observers of human nature, edging out the poet’s claim to that position.
At all times Pelton’s work is filled with political saavy, an empathy for societies’ outcasts, and a frustrated awareness of the writer’s limited ability to effect change upon the events he or she records. Malcolm & Jack is not the book you might expect it to be. Indeed, a straightforward tour through the major figures of the post-war period would have been a much simpler task. Instead, with immense talent, Pelton has attempted to weave implicit cultural critique, reflective internal monologue, three love stories, and a whole bunch of well-wrought character sketches into a series of progressing narratives that harmonize as much as they juxtapose. In this reviewer’s humble opinion, 99% of the time, he succeeds.
Matthew Hotham is completing his MFA at Syracuse University and works for BOA editions. His work has appeared in Soundings East, The Chautauqua Literary Journal and the November 3rd Club and other journals. He is the author of a poetry chapbook, Early Art, published by Turtle ink Press in 2006.