Joy Rancatore‘s debut novel dramatically opens with 15-year-old Jack Calhoun’s life permanently altered: a teenage drag race ends in death and disaster. From that point onward, Jack shoulders the guilt of four deaths–compounded later by two other deaths for which he takes responsibility. Set up in five acts (you may have to look up “instauration” like I did), Any Good Thing is a saga that you will enjoy reading.
In the first chapter the reader meets Jack’s girlfriend, Rachel Burns, her father Ben, and Jack’s mother, Becky; the three people who are his trinity of support as Jack wrestles with demons from his past.
Jack’s father abandoned the family when Jack was young and Ben becomes a father figure to him. Quickly after the accidents, Jack descends into alcoholism; Ben helps him to get into a rehab. There, Jack confesses his motivation to get over his addiction: “I want to be better for my mom and the people who’ve stuck by me…despite all I’ve done.” (p. 43)
Although this refrain is repeated throughout the book, Jack’s fatal flaw/sinful thought pattern is that he believes the only way he can help the people he loves is to remove his poisonous influence from their lives. “No more would he sit by and watch people he loved get hurt by whatever curse had claimed him as its host. The final tendrils of the sun’s red hair slunk before him as he headed west.” (p. 90)
With this faulty conclusion guiding him, he joins the Marines and vows to make something of his life and become a source of pride to his mother.
Jack’s internal conversation shows that he sees himself as a failure, but at the same time the author portrays him as a successful carpenter and outstanding Marine who is consistently promoted. Even when he feels responsible for his best friend, Tray’s, death in Iraq, Tray’s mother forgives him, but he doesn’t forgive himself.
Jack feels hopeless when he returns home after taking a bullet in his right arm. His days as a Marine Scout Sniper are over and he refuses to get help. He enters into a bleak, near-suicidal time of roaming through North Carolina. His only help for the reoccurring PTSD anxiety is a stray, shaggy hound, Scout, who provides the companionship which Jack desperately needs.
Early in the book Jack is disillusioned by the hypocrisy in his hometown church; later Ben also leaves the church for a similar reason. The novel is also full of characters who speak about Jack’s need to receive God’s grace and peace. Jack’s “that’s-good-for-you-but-can-never-apply-to-me-attitude” prevails for most of the book. Although I appreciated the author weaving a Christian theme into the story, sin and salvation is less central than coming to God to receive peace. The centrality of Christ as Savior could have been made stronger.
The author does not shy away from hard topics like alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, straying from the faith, and PTSD. One of the most touching parts of the book was how Rachel demonstrates an amazing understanding of what Jack has experienced in Iraq and demonstrates unconditional, unselfish love towards him.
For me, the most powerful part of this book came in the last one hundred pages. An unexpected encounter with his father helps Jack begin his journey home, eventually leading to his emotional and spiritual healing. Jack’s self-absorption (which is the lie behind “I’m too bad for even God to love me”) is shown in the last few pages. Although Jack’s coming to faith was somewhat predictable, it provides a satisfactory resolution to Christian readers.
If you love adult fiction that includes drama, reconciliation, and romance, then this book is one you will enjoy. Please leave a comment with your name and email address by 8 PM on January 15 for a chance to win an autographed copy.
Note: Portions of this review first appeared on Carol Baldwin’s blog.