Thursday, June 5, 2008

Josie and Jack by Kelly Braffett

I’ve read a great many thrillers where the bad guy is almost always portrayed as a sociopath. Sure, these writers do some research, most likely online, and create an over-the-top portrait of extreme villainy without ever fully understanding the subtle complexities, the common ordinary fact of evil among us, and hardly ever do these authors even attempt to understand just what makes their bad guy tick. What’s also missing in these modern thrillers is that for the diagnosis of psychopathy to be accurate, the person must also have been diagnosed in their teenaged year as what psychologists call a “conduct disordered” youth.

So, rarely do I see sociopaths accurately depicted; and even more uncommon is to encounter a novel that explores psychopathy as a trait inherited across generations, but when I started reading Kelly Braffet’s debut novel Josie and Jack, I knew I was in the hands of a bold and mature author with insight into the dark recesses of the human psyche that few writers possess. After I was done, I put the book down and thought: This book should be required reading in every forensic psychology class. Ms. Braffet nails it.

While some have compared Josie and Jack to V.C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic (a book, I confess, to have never read) I can attest that it is much more on a par with Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and John Fowles’ The Collector in that the reader is in a constant state of unease as they turn the page; they know that unlike more conventional and less realistic thrillers, that good will not prevail in the end and that true evil is not some liver-and-fava-bean-eating caricature of a monster but is as ordinary seeming as the paper delivery boy. Or your brother, sister or father. What the readers of these books far more sophisticated books can never guess is: How will it end?

Bored and boozing teenage siblings Josie and Jack pass the time during their abusive college professor dad’s long absences by driving into the small Pennsylvania town where they live; Jack’s purpose is to use his sultry sister as bait to entice a young
pharmacy clerk to steal drugs for them. When Kevin falls for Josie, Jack’s incest-fueled jealousy turns violent. Withdrawn and repelled by Jack’s rage, he lures her back to unquestioned loyalty by reminding Josie: “There’s a gap between us and them and you can’t bridge it.” With their mentally ill mother “Crazy Mary” long dead from suicide, and their supercilious father gone away all week, caught up in academic politics and scandal at a college that’s too far away for him to drive home every night, Josie has no choice but to acquiesce to a brother who is both tormentor and protector. And lover.

Joe Raeburn, their father, returns to the role of full time father during the Christmas break. Tensions between father and son come to a head when Jack betrays Joe by providing an academic rival with the ammunition to destroy his career. Jack storms off, leaving Josie in such a state of such lonely destitution that when he returns briefly to raid the house for valuables to pawn, Josie begs her take him with her, even if it’s to his new girlfriend’s house.

As the transient siblings end up in New York City, they drift from hustle to con, sponging off a series of women easily fooled by Jack’s seductive wiles. But as each
woman in turn suspects there’s more between the siblings than just filial loyalty, things can only turn ugly, especially since the sort of people who don’t mind housing a couple of petty thieves tend to be criminals themselves. Jack’s last mark is Lilly, a woman with movie star glamour who’s as corrupt and amoral as he is. Josie learns the hard way there’s no honor among thieves. After being drugged, she’s raped by two men, friends of Lily. In what seems like homage to the Paula Fox classic Desperate Characters, Josie is bitten by a ferret as she stumbles her way through her rapist’s apartment. She’s later treated for rabies. The subsequent events represent a turning point for Josie, and the reader is stunned by the unexpected violent culmination of this dark and twisted tale.

Kelly Braffet's first novel, Josie and Jack, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. She was born in Long Beach, California, in 1976, and has lived in Arizona, rural Pennsylvania and Oxford, England. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, and has taught novel writing at the Sackett Street Writing Workshop. You can read more about Kelly at her way cool website