Gordon's Reviews > I Didn't Mean to Be Kevin

I Didn't Mean to Be Kevin by Caleb J. Ross
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Jan 03, 2012

it was amazing
Read from April 29 to May 14, 2012

Did you know that if you're ever lost in a maze, you can always find your way out—eventually—if you just cling to one wall and trace it all the way to its exit? Jackson Jacoby is sticking to his story, too. It's a morphing, evolving tale to suit his immediate identity needs in the company of his traveling companions, these strangers-du-jour kindred spirits collected on the road to meet the mother he's spent his life convincing himself he doesn't need. Wait, not his real mother; this is just some lady who placed an ad searching for her estranged son, both of them happy to surrogate the other in their long-distance delusions.

Jackson is the ultimate unreliable narrator in a story about the very nature of storytelling itself. Why do we spin such tales? For the entertainment of others? Social anesthesia? To define ourselves? Reinvent ourselves? The book is also sprinkled with subtle, metafictional easter eggs that reference other classic novels' character backstories—people Jackson claims to have met in his adventures, shortening the rope of his believability. Along our pilgrimage east, we stop in such roadside attractions/hazards as body-part museums, snow mazes, and diners aplenty—in search of "futile game"—each populated with someone and their story. Everybody's got one. And probably an alternate: a director's cut that's been refined and embellished over the years like some one-man game of Telephone. A recurring theme of ears permeates the book: torching them, explaining them, stealing them, bending them. Jackson's (self-)destructive behavior and assholica take some warming up to, and he never makes it easy for anyone (including the reader), but eventually you'll find some sympathy in that blackened heart of yours for this motherless man-child.

I first read a draft of Kevin about four years ago, when it was a semi-finalist in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel competition. My then-review praised Ross's "limping lot lizards and Latina-logging launderers and moneyed mourning matriarchs," calling the manuscript "a tight, unwashed romp with an experienced professional of flexible morals who pushes all the right buttons to make you squirm and thank them for it in the end." All that still holds true. Now, did I tell you how I got this ear?
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