Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: Ugly to Start With by John Michael Cummings

Ugly to Start With 
By John Michael Cummings

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Jason Stevens is growing up in picturesque, historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the 1970s. Back when the roads are smaller, the cars slower, the people more colorful, and Washington, D.C. is way across the mountains—a winding sixty-five miles away. Jason dreams of going to art school in the city, but he must first survive his teenage years. He witnesses a street artist from Italy charm his mother from the backseat of the family car. He stands up to an abusive husband—and then feels sorry for the jerk. He puts up with his father’s hard-skulled backwoods ways, his grandfather’s showy younger wife, and the fist-throwing schoolmates and eccentric mountain characters that make up Harpers Ferry—all topped off by a basement art project with a girl from the poor side of town. Ugly to Start With punctuates the exuberant highs, bewildering midpoints, and painful lows of growing up, and affirms that adolescent dreams and desires are often fulfilled in surprising ways.

I have enjoyed all of the books that have been sent to me for review, but Ugly to Start With is in a league of its own. From the content, to the format, to the quality of writing...John Michael Cummings delivers a high quality and emotive novel that is potentially my favourite read of 2012.

Ugly to Start With is a patchwork quilt style narrative. It unites thirteen short stories in a general chronological order that delve into the life of teenager Jason Stevens. Each story is self-contained and delivers an insightful look into all the elements that help a teenage become the person they need/want to be. While Jason battles with the difficulty of desiring to be an artist in a small historical town, and of not conforming to the very traditional and conservative ideals of the town and his family, the book also looks at the issues a community of this type encounter. The book touches on a myriad of themes and issues, race, class, family and community hierarchy, sexuality, pedaphilia, abusive relationships…however it successfully manages to convey these issues without every coming off preachy or one-sided, or losing sight of its young protagonist. If anything, this book shows the complexity every issue contains, how un-black and white these problems are, and how this can affect a growing and impressionable teenager.

 I’m finding it hard to express exactly how wonderfully intricate this book is. It is so encompassing, yet so specific at the same time, I don’t think there are many writers who can manage this. By the time I finished this book, I felt like I knew Harper's Ferry, I understood the people who lived there and the way they thought and the motives behind their actions. At the same time, I completely empathised with Jason, he's a fish out of water, he's vulnerable and caught in a moment of flux. From the first story we know what he wants, to move to Washington (or any city really) and become an artist, but each story throws up another roadblock in the shape of his family, his personal history, the towns prejudices, which could not only halt his progress but actually manipulate him into the typical townperson he should be but doesn’t want to become.

I loved all of the stories for what they brought to the greater story, but there were three in particular that stood out.

The Wallet – ( In which Jason discovers there is more to the turbulant relationship of his mother’s friend than what is shown on the surface.)

This story is beautifully told, and takes a scenario which typically has everyone on the one side, and provides something that, although it doesn't excuse his actions, it makes you realise judgement is far too easy. In essence, this story really made clear the overarching theme that I identified in the story, and really highlighted the internal struggle that Jason had to overcome.

Rusty Clackford – (In which Jason meets an old man and begins to spend time at his house)

This was one of the shorter stories but just a really sweet example of the kid Jason was/is. It’s perhaps more melancholic than any of the other stories, but there is a real beauty in the static action of the story and an overwhelming feeling of hope and calm. Jason seems truly content in this story, just free and happy in the moment.

Generations – (In which Jason tags along on one of his father’s mail runs)

This was the perfect way to close the book. Generations mirrors and book ends the opening story which had Jason driving with his mother and discovering how hard it was going to be for him to move from Harper’s Ferry and become the artist and man he wants to become. There is no definite closure, but this story hints at a further progression for Jason in his desire to become an artist, as well as an intriguing look at the relationship between Jason and his father.

When I was 12 The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys changed my life with its frank detailing of young teenage boys who loved art and anarchy and were experimenting with love, identity and religion. 10 years later I’ve found its spiritual counterpart. Ugly to Start With is earnest and unflinching and doesn’t steer away from discussing every element that jigsaws together to form a teenager’s adult personality. Regardless of where you are in your own life, I think this is a book that everyone can connect with and find parallels to their own adolescence.


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