If Jack’s in Love
by Stephen Wetta
Reviewed by Rhett DeVane
The transition between tormented boyhood and teenage angst is difficult enough for young genius Jack Witchner. Add in a shiftless redneck father, a bullying dope-smoking older brother, a meek homely mother, and a family home that is an eyesore at the edges of an upscale Virginia neighborhood. Small wonder the young protagonist of Stephen Wetta’s If Jack’s in Love can function at all. But he does, and beautifully, with a strength of character and wise humor far superior to most of the adults around him.
Spanning the few months of 1967 between Jack’s twelfth and thirteenth years, the pivotal time lends itself to comedy and tragedy. The author gives a solid nod to the classic Romeo and Juliet, complete with two star-crossed young lovers straining against dueling families and dissimilar social standings.
In his quest for the affections of his first love, gangly Myra Joyner, Jack faces huge odds. He’s from poor family stock; she’s in line for Ivy League schools. When Jack’s father picks a fight with Myra Joyner’s neighbor, Myra’s father steps into the fray. Jack’s brother Stan despises Myra’s popular brother Gaylord for stealing his girlfriend Courtney, and he gladly joins the fight. From that point, tension escalates in the neighborhood, in Jack’s school and between the two families.
All Jack really wants is the love of Myra, perhaps a few stolen kisses. And to not be judged solely on the fact he is “one of them,” a no-good, no-account Witchner. Trouble seems to haunt him at every turn, just because of who he is. Jack is befriended by Moses Gladstein, a local jeweler and the town Jew, who is just as much an “outsider” as Jack. Mr. Gladstein gives Jack a ring to woo his lady love, along with pep talks and suggestions on how to make the unlikely magic happen.
For a while, life seems to be handing Jack a break. Myra begrudgingly accepts his gifts, even seems to designate him as her official boyfriend. Then things tumble south, fast.
When Gaylord disappears, everyone leaps to the worst possible conclusion: Gaylord is dead, murdered, and a Witchner is undoubtedly responsible. All eyes turn to the ramshackle shack where the lowest neighborhood faction lives. Though he has little to do with any of the events, Jack is judged with the rest of his clan. Bad blood. Bad house. Bad news. Nothing good has ever come from a Witchner. And it never will. Or will it?
The characters populating If Jack’s in Love offer surprises at every turn. Even Jack’s meek, vacant mother shows strength and moral fortitude far beyond expectations. You will route for Jack, love him, and cheer when he rises above the sandstorm of sludge that life has cast over his young head. The only problem with this book is that it ever has to end.
About the author:
Stephen Wetta received a degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond at age 32, after having worked at various jobs. In 1989, he moved to NYC and earned a Masters and Ph.D. from NYU. For years, he taught at various area schools, including NYU, Rutgers, Brooklyn College and Hunter College, until Hunter hired him full-time. Stephen has lived in Manhattan and Queens, and now resides in Brooklyn. He lives with Julie Winterbottom, a writer of children’s books. If Jack’s in Love is his first novel.