January Read of the Month: “Jar of Pennies” by John Yearwood

John Yearwood’s Jar of Pennies (John & Stephenie Yearwood Management Trust, 2022) is an impeccably written cultural and historical crime fiction novel.  The author knows how to spin a tale, capture a character, set a scene, portray a community, and write in stellar prose. However, as established in its opening chapter, it is not a sugar-coated genteel tale of Southern life in the 1970s, but rather a story with teeth, gristle, and bones. Though sometimes a bit gruesome—but not gratuitously—the story balances the darkness of its central plot with wry humor and never treats its main characters with anything less than a kind of revered fascination. Quite simply put, Jar of Pennies is an exceptional novel.

The plot is inspired by a real and tragic event in which a man, Earl Carl Heiselbetz, Jr., killed a mother and her child in rural east Texas in 1991. Jar of Pennies fictionalizes the facts and adds additional murders and a thick layer of interwoven subplots. He also moves the murders back to 1979. That date makes this book a historical crime mystery novel. In addition to the historical label, the publishers have it also classified as “cultural heritage fiction.” Jar of Pennies could also be considered “grit lit,” so named depending upon your source either for the “gritty” nature of the story, or grits, denoting its Southern setting. It also has a Southern Gothic gloss with a haunted courthouse basement replacing the stereotypical haunted attic. The political corruption and illegal drugs subplots have a ripped-from-today’s-headlines impact that belies the 1979 time frame—and proves, as a main character observes dryly, that nothing really changes.

Regardless of what genre label one attaches, Jar of Pennies is not constructed like a typical who-done-it-murder mystery because the author tells you in Chapter One who the murderer is—Jesse Grinder. He also identifies at least two of his victims. Notwithstanding that reveal, the novel is replete with tension. Though the “who” is told early on, the story creates intense interest in the remaining journalistic dictates of “what, when, why, and how.” For example, the author is artful enough to create an almost unbearable suspense in the pages leading up to the discovery of two bodies.

As reflected by the publisher’s “cultural heritage” label, Jar of Pennies is ultimately a story about a small community in East Texas, and how the murders impact the residents. It is also about “uncovering the always myriad versions of truth.” East Texans might not like being compared to “an unpopulated frontier” as opposed to a civilized place. But they hopefully will enjoy the care with which the author creates his characters and the respect, even affection, he shows the deserving members of this fictional community.

Speaking through the voice of the novel’s primary character, a young newspaper man nicknamed BoMac (short for Beaumont Sebastien Maclean), the book explains it mission:

What [BoMac] would not be able to capture [in a newspaper story] was the solemn tension of the community, or the excited buzzing at the jury’s death sentence, or the pitiful wail of Grinder’s mother collapsing in the re-purposed church pews that seated the gallery. That was the story— how the murder trial affected the community—but not in his weekly paper. This sad tale needed a book.

BoMac is a fascinating character, a classic hero, who sees great value in his job as the sole reporter on a weekly paper in the small community of Whitmire.

The dialogue is nearly perfect with the cadences and colloquialisms that make it seem like the reader is a fly on the wall listening to every word. Here’s a prime example:

“Phone’s in the hallway,” she said, “I’m going to sit out here a minute longer, stare at my tomatoes coming in and listen to that mockingbird over there singing his fool head off.”

“Yeah, he’s got a nice voice,” said Henniker, catching the screen door to stop it from banging.

Certain sentences ring with the meter and images of poetry, flowing naturally within the narrative of the story. For example, as two out-of-town drug dealers are casing a local bar they hope to infiltrate, Yearwood captures the scene: “Tobacco smoke drifted in a silver cloud from the open door of the nightclub, like a snake.”

The narration switches between characters in a seamless stream with occasional excursions into third person omniscience. Many of these voices display fundamental wisdom, like BoMac’s observation that “It’s not history that repeats, but people. People are always the same. Just their methods change. We move from crucifixion to electric chairs to death needles. Same stuff, different methods.”

Plot, conflict, and character are generally what move a novel, and Jar of Pennies is rich in all three. Racial, cultural, and personal conflicts shape and compound the story lines around the murders. The murderer himself, Jesse Grinder, is an interesting, if repellant, character. Though raised in a hard-working, religious household, he is a dirt poor, uneducated man who suffers spells from an old head injury. He ends up murdering several people—though not as many as he is convicted of killing. The story digs into this man’s limited thoughts and treats him with a kind of cautious pity, yet without shying from the horror of his life or his murderous binges. He is a feral man, living in a remote trailer in filth and fleas, driven primarily by the basest of instincts. Yet he is well developed as a character, and this is a tribute to the author’s skill and compassion.

The Black social studies teacher who came “from up North” is another hero and pivotal character. He seldom reveals that he is a retired lieutenant colonel after twenty-three years in special forces. Yet,“[e]veryone in Whitmire was uneasy about him. Charles Henniker had that way of moving that telegraphed danger.” Henniker’s epiphany about becoming a teacher explains in part why he is in this small Southern town: “How on earth could ignorant people get along with one another? he wondered. And then of course the obvious answer was, they couldn’t. Ignorance is intolerant. The only way to make a difference was to teach.” As a widower still in love with his long-dead wife, his slow courtship of a bright and confident woman adds a dose of sweetness to the story.

Another hero of the story represents everyman. Darryl Stewart is a gentle, hard-working man in love with his wife, his fishing boat, and his life. Darryl rolls through the early pages in much the low-key ways he rolls through his life. He adds local color and a dash of droll humor until he has the misery of being unwillingly pulled into the hard-core action. He had other ambitions than the role that befell him:

Darryl was bound and determined that he would be the most famous trotline fisherman in the history of Texas, and it drove him to wake up every morning, hook up his boat to his work truck, and drive out through the morning fog to the lake to run his trotlines. Every morning. [His wife] Mary never even knew he was gone, and the peace and tranquility on the lake before dawn was like opium to him.

Darryl was addicted. At 4 a.m. every morning, his eyes popped wide. He needed his fix.

The women in the book are diverse, and while not as fully drawn as the male characters, are a key part of the story. They are generally treated with respect by the author where deserved. Lizzie King, the Black girlfriend of the social studies teacher, is a particularly wise, complex character who adds many a wry observation.

All in all, Jar of Pennies is a superb book, filled with acute observations of human behavior in all its glory and all its grime. The plot and various subplots are riveting, and yet it is the characters who dominate and fascinate the most. Don’t miss this one.

John Yearwood

The author, John Yearwood, like BoMac, was a reporter. He’s a former stringer for the New York Times and was an award-winning journalist for fifteen years. And, like another of his characters, he has also taught school. Since retiring in 2012, he volunteers helping elementary students improve their reading skills and assisting refugee immigrants when he is not writing. He is the author of the Icarus Series which includes: The Icarus Jump; The City and the Gate; and The Gender of Fire. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two small dogs.



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