Prodigals Deftly Exemplifies Adulthood In All Its Downer Glory

“You should not have grown wise before you grew old.” This piece of wisdom, from the last, and longest, of the eight stories in Jackson’s new collection, Prodigals, perfectly sums up the underlying current of the book. In short: Life doesn’t turn out the way you want it to, and it really sucks for those who learn that early on in adulthood.

These stories speak hard truths about being a grown up and the evolving definition of what it means to be one. The narrators are hyper-aware of the false security and knowledge that comes from having money, from schooling, from doing drugs, from having conversations, from religion, from the internet. The characters are remarkably perceptive, cynical, and defeated. But even though these stories lack hope, Jackson writes with a brutal frankness far more appealing than trying to sell the reader on happily-ever-afters.

In the first story, “Wagner in the Desert,” the narrator joins his friends for one last drug-fueled adventure before they try to have a baby. They want to take and do everything and anything, and refer to it as their ‘Baby Bucket List.’ Basically it’s free pass to treat reality with heavy doses of hallucinogens and espouse bullshit through a screen of pharmaceuticals. (When one character attempts to come up with something really deep and meaningful to say, all he manages it “I’m really stoned.”) But in actuality it’s a pathetic field trip for adults who secretly believe college was the best years of their lives but would never admit it out loud.

In “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” the narrator and his girlfriend visit with a former world-famous tennis pro who refuses to play the game any longer and instead ignores his wife and children by hiding away in his workroom. He has become convinced he may not actually exist, and infects those around him with the feeling of a shrinking reality.

In “Epithalamium,” a woman in the midst of a nasty divorce seeks to rectify her long list of regrets by surrounding herself with young people in the hopes of finding fun and joy. But having become inured to optimism and lost her capacity for happiness, she manages instead to make more of a mess of her life when she cannot hide her jealousy.

In all of the stories in “Prodigals,” the characters behave with the insight and indignation of people who have had revelations about their lives yet know they aren’t going to change. In “Dynamics in the Storm,” a couple pretends to meet for the first time while driving during a terrible storm, when in reality their relationship has already blown apart. Characters smoke in front of a woman whose husband is dying of lung cancer; they take truckloads of drugs to try and evoke happiness and a respite from reality. “The worst part of a trip, we can all agree, is the moment you have come down enough to realize you are not down all the way.”

Jackson is incredibly funny and amazingly sharp in his observations of regrets and disappointment, and the compelling stories are full of wisdom. This book has a lot of warmth in spite of the cold hard truths they tell. His characters struggle with morality in the face of a world where morals seem no longer worth having, and hopes and dreams are constantly being downgraded until they are simply stories they tell themselves to help them get through the day. “We were trying to find ways not to be villains,” one character says. These are people using the past as a salve on the present. Jackson deftly shows the nuances of adult consciousness with dark humor and compassion, and this pithy collection is a powerful debut sure to bring him recognition.

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