It was immensely difficult for me to decide how to properly write this review – how to address things in it that I strongly disliked while still praising its many merits? First of all, I would like to say that the extent of Spears’ writing skill is highly impressive to me, considering how well the book was written and how much I enjoyed sitting down to read it, DESPITE the fact that I could not stand the protagonist or anything he stood for. That, to me, was a huge testament of good writing. When I read a book, I don’t just look for books that are within a certain field I am interested in, though on my own time and money, of course that’s what I gravitate to – I look for and enjoy reading books that can draw me in and make me care, despite the subject matter, and that’s just what R.M.A. Spears has done with this work.
It seems to be quite autobiographical, so respecting the lens of personal experience (not to mention the fact that Spears, like Brick, his protagonist – is a Marine veteran, and I’d hate to have someone like that holding a grudge against me!), I have decided to do what I would myself prefer: to share what I didn’t like and save what I did like for the end of my review.
There are several things I did not like about this book, namely Brick’s terrible bigoted attitude towards anyone different from himself, especially homosexuals, women, ethnic groups outside his own, religious groups, and anyone on the left-leaning side of the political spectrum. I could list quote after quote of Brick condemning all of these groups, but the most prevalent throughout is his vilification of women. Right off the bat, he refers to his current wife as ‘the next ex-Mrs. Me’ (red flag right there), and then continues as he describes his life, offhandedly mentioning the ‘rant of the women’s movement’ (23), and later that ‘We men are knuckleheads but women are crazy’ (57). After he describes a fellow train passenger in very negative terms without even knowing anything about her, a passage I read to my husband aloud, who actually nicknamed this book Douchebag’s Guide to Life, I was not surprised how several of his marriages fell apart later on, since he was not treating women like people but like objects, things he could use for his own gratification. This was the quote (which wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been compounded by so many other quotes like it regarding issues like race and sexual orientation throughout the book) : ‘All her other superficial stuff, a big purse and ten-gallon open-top luggable, full of her essential girl-crap, magnified her elevated stature, one that deserved a whole seat for her whole bitch self’ (8-9). Whoa. Keep in mind that he doesn’t actually know anything about her. A bit of cynicism towards life, and a nice helping of resentment, no?
Well, as it turns out, actually, yes, and a lot of it. We learn throughout various memories of his life that Brick has while riding the train that he was sexually assaulted as a young boy by his baseball coach, he is a Vietnam war veteran, his second wife cheats on him and when he allows himself an affair, she tears his life apart to get back at him, and that despite all his time and money spent on joining the military he just never seems to catch a break after Vietnam and spends most of his time in dead-end jobs, so to me he has pretty good reason if anyone does for holding on to some anger and resentment.
But I do have to say this: GOING THROUGH TRAUMATIC AND DISAPPOINTING EVENTS DOES NOT GIVE YOU LICENSE TO BE AN ASS (although I will agree that it teaches you how to be a better one than most people).
However, having said all of that, I highly praise Spears for his excellent writing style. It’s very descriptive and very engaging. The memories-while-on-a-train device was skilfully used, and the fresh sense of urgency and being in the present at the end of the book lent strength to the idea that though Brick had felt like only a passenger in his own life for most of it, he was finally in control and getting off at the right stop, if you will. I kept coming back to the book wanting to read more.
Hell of a protagonist (I’d probably punch him if I met him) but excellent writing.
3 stars out of 5