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Rocks in the Belly

by Jon Bauer

The Freudian slip of forgetting to take his luggage with him as he gets off the bus outside his old home is telling: that suitcase he trundles on little plastic wheels - it is all flyweight compared to the baggage he is hauling in his soul. If only he could leave THAT on a rack somewhere! But his guilt has survived seven years of self-imposed exile. He even checks the marker pen graffiti with which he vandalised the back of the bus shelter so long ago as he sniffed thinners from his blazer sleeve. Of course it is still there. No one in Snoresville is likely to clean it off.

The unnamed narrator has come home to care for his lonely widowed mother as she lives out whatever remains of her life that brain cancer will allow. He is her only child but he grew up steeped in private jealousy and resentment of the foster children who seemed to take up all her time and attention. One particularly hated boy called Robert engaged his mother's affection in a way he never could.

This novel is not only disturbing, it is truly frightening, so graphic and immediate are the scenes in the book and so compelling is the narrative and the dialogue. The menace is not an evil thing: it is in its innocence that it is so shocking. His dependence on alcohol, marijuana and casual sex are probably to be expected in a man so damaged as a young boy: he harbours the shame of a broken child.

At twenty-eight he still craves his motherís love but she is hardly there any more. Now she is the needy one. She is also exasperating, severely disabled and vulnerable. He is far from grown-up, bored and friendless, and impatient. When he is shaky and overhung, he is still the eight-year-old boy who put his cat in the washing machine. Only now he is a strong young man with film-star good looks, sex appeal in spades, and a lying tongue. And he feels guilt, real guilt, for what he did to all of them. But she still doesn't know it was him. Or does she?

Try to put this novel down from time to time when you are reading it. Stay in touch with your friends and the book-group. Ring the kids. Take the dog out. This book is nervous-breakdown material. But forget the valium or the prosac, because you need to be wide awake to appreciate it. Jon Bauer's sympathy for the sick woman, his understanding of her son, and his affection for old age and most of the human race animates the urgency to find out what happens to the protagonists in this tale. (His social worker checks her lipstick in her rear-view mirror, undoes her top button and then does it up again. His hero gets drunk in a restaurant and tries to click his fingers for the waiter, but has to lick them and try again - the waiter ignores him. He picks up an exciting strange girl in a bar and tells her a pack of lies about himself, only to realises she had been at his school, and her mother had been a friend of his mother's). But even the humour in this book is precarious.

Bauer's insight into the mind of a child, or a man, or a young woman is uncanny. His beady eye misses nothing in the behaviour of bar staff, an angry aunt, a photographer, or a drunk. It could hinder the narrative were it not for the feather lightness of Bauer's touch. Now you see it, now you don't. But what you do see is incisive and will not be forgotten. The telling of the story of the hurt child; the parents; the wreck of four lives; and what happens next, is unforgettable.

Paula McMaster

Published by Serpentís Tail, 304pp.


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