Paul Eckert's Reviews > I Didn't Mean to Be Kevin

I Didn't Mean to Be Kevin by Caleb J. Ross
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's review
Jan 04, 2012

it was amazing
Read in April, 2012

It's hard to tell what a Caleb Ross book is going to be about just by reading the back cover blurb. In fact, I feel that the blurbs of praise on the book are more indicative of what the experience will be like. Rayo Casablanca calls it "an amazing fiction concept." Publishers Weekly called it "stirring." You could try and explain to someone how this is about a guy driven to embark on a road trip to Deleware to prove that having a mother is overrated, but I think "stirring" and "amazing fiction concept" are more accurate to describe what the experience is like. Sometimes it works really well, other times it lacks just a little something, but I'm always glad that I spent time indulging in another Ross' unique visions.

The thing that I think you should be aware of upfront: Jackson Jacoby, the main character, is hard to like. You learn early on that he is an unreliable narrator, and overall, not a very likable person. But like all compulsive liars, the truth slips out in bits and pieces throughout the story, and as we learn more about him, the more we come to understand the way he is. It's one of the most commendable aspects of Ross' fiction that he can make a compelling unlikable narrator. Whereas most fiction focuses on strong, decisive characters that follow a formula of revealing themselves through acts of will, Ross' characters are lost, unsure of themselves, and a bit pathetic. But the interesting thing is, when you immerse yourself in the mind of such a person, you begin to see some of the little ugly pieces of yourself and the people you know. To some degree, these characters are like defective machines (which current neurology research seems to support, that we are more like machines than the models of free will that we think we are). Kudos to Ross for writing about characters who are broken and disfigured, who aren't Type A hero cliches, and who are unapologetic for who they are. This darkness in his work may take a bit of getting used to, but once you're there, you can't help but enjoy delving into this haunted area of human behavior.

I never felt like Jackson's "motherlessness" was at the center of his actions. Rather, it seemed to be indicative of a larger problem: because of his "motherlessness" (and "fatherlessness" for that matter), he has no roots. He's never had a guiding hand leading him one way or the other. His next closest relative was practically insane, so it's no wonder he turned out to be so strange. He seems to embark on his trip less as a real desire to do anything and more to open himself up to anything that could happen along the way. There is an undercurrent of his desire to meet a woman he is pretending is his mother, to try and feel the experience of having a mother, but his real issue seems to be his lack of any solid foundation.

All along the way, Jackson tells stories about a man named Marion Garza. The stories morph overtime, and as they change, we begin to see more of what might be the real Jackson.

Jackson also has a fascination with dismembered body parts. Perhaps it's because of his missing ear. Maybe it was a metaphor for something that was missing in himself. It was interesting to see where this took him in the story, but I never felt that it tied in real cleanly with the rest of the story. Maybe that was the point. This was one area where Jackson's unreliability obscured what exactly happened. By the end, I wasn't sure what really happened with the various dismembered body parts that appear through the story, but I also felt like the truth wasn't that important to the story. But as much as missing ears and feet play a part in the story, it seems like it should matter more. But sometimes our quirks don't always have much to do with other aspects of ourselves, even if they feel like they should in the art of storytelling.

The real fun of I Didn't Mean To Be Kevin is riding the course of this unreliable narrator and figuring out your version of the truth for yourself. Caleb Ross is never going to hand you a moral on a silver platter. So if you're in the mood to read something different, something that will entrance you and bring you inside the world of a troubled mind, I heartily recommend I Didn't Mean To Be Kevin.
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