June Papers, the brisk, smart narrator of James W. Jennings' new novel, is an artist and substitute teacher in New York, faced with the prospect of homelessness.
"I have a master's degree in fine arts. I also have $100k in student loans and transgressions on my record that at times require explanation," he says. This self-portrait also serves as the central source of conflict: As June tries to pursue his ambitions, financial difficulties and previous errors hold him back. Even when he buys a one-way ticket to the island of Saint Timothy, he gets only as far as the airport before he feels forced to turn around.
At its best, Jennings' prose is striking and original, peppered with a series of poetic impressions. At a game of kickball, "Peanut vendor claps twice. Mid-celebration a boy in suede shoes steals the kickball, and a chase ensues." Later, "Lexington Avenue pigeons migrate overhead and it's both disgusting and beautiful." On a ferry pulling into Vineyard Haven, fog "turns the whole world into a small white amphitheater."
Substitute teaching, journaling in cafes, and riding the subway for hours, June reflects on his predicament with wry humor: "I wonder how it is I'm not a millionaire yet." At times, June's fragmented interiority can become distracting and philosophical. The slower scenes, such as one in which June completes a simple errand at the post office, more effectively explore themes of money and time.
Jennings' dialogue is often quite strong, and June's comfort among friends and peers is evident, as is the way the language changes when he speaks to strangers. When he goes to Martha's Vineyard to visit his grandmother, who is in danger of losing her house, the setting changes drastically, but the problems remain the same.
Although the quick pace and immediacy of Jennings' work are some of its pleasures, one wishes at times for a bit more context to ground each character. Although Nana's financial troubles are ostensibly the reason June doesn't get on the plane to Saint Timothy, the story pays scant attention to this problem or its resolution and the final chapters feel detached from the majority of the work.
The novel's primary interest is the way June sees the world, a perspective that Jennings fills with imagery and wit.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
Wings of Red
By: James W. Jennings.
Publisher: Soft Skull Press, 217 pages, $16.95.