|I wasn’t sure where to begin my review of “East Jesus.” Having just read and reviewed the prequel, “Blood And Remembrance,”there are elements within the book that I would not have recognized had I read them in the sequence in which they were written and published. Nonetheless, each book stands on its own and there is no requirement to have read them in any particular order, or for that matter any less enjoyment for having read just one or the other.
Obviously, the setting and most of the characters carry over, as does the the violence and threat of violence that is pervasive in both novels. However, the resignation and desperation that dominate the narrative in “Blood And Remembrance” are tempered in “East Jesus” by the innocence and optimism of children unwilling to just accept their fate and, unlike the adults who simply go about their lives trapped by their circumstances and poor decisions, actually hold out hope of a brighter future.
From the very first chapter the reader knows that a day of reckoning is coming, that there will be a climactic confrontation to end years of mental and physical abuse. Still, the ending you expect is not what Chris Manno delivers. The looming disaster that has been building throughout the entire book plays out, but not in any way that you could have envisioned.
The WOW factor aside, Chris Manno has written a coming of age story the likes of which I have not encountered since reading “The Last Picture Show” by Larry McMurtry. The year is 1969 and seventeen year old Travis Carlisle must first deal with the situation at home – Pop who promises yet more abuse; “unfinished business” that will be settled once and for all when he rolls his big rig back into town, Momma whose daily routine involves endless cigarettes and alcohol to cope with a life of repeated beatings and meaningless sex, his little sister Bean who is traumatized by what she’s seen and at age five hasn’t spoken a single word, and his Uncle Otis recently released from Huntsville State Penitentiary, who frightens almost everyone in the West Texas town of Conroy but is pledged to protect both Travis and Bean.
If that isn’t enough drama for anyone at this age, Travis is also experiencing the angst and exhilaration of being a teenager in a small rural town. There may not be much to Conroy, Texas… nobody new ever settles there and few even pass through because it’s on the road to nowhere, but he and his best friend Buster still chase after the local girls hoping to get past 2nd base, work hard to make the varsity football team to play under those Friday night lights, sneak a cold brew whenever and wherever they can, hang out at the Dixie Dog and Alamo Cafe, participate in pick-up baseball games with their friends, look forward to the annual Fair in Lubbock, marvel at astronauts landing on the moon, and try to comprehend through letters written by Buster’s older brother Bo what it is like to travel halfway around the world to fight on foreign soil in a place called Vietnam.
Once again I found myself totally immersed in a Chris Manno novel. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Texas, but I was able to project my own experiences onto the tapestry of life, death, pain, sorrow and redemption that is “East Jesus.” If you appreciate flesh and blood characters, their interwoven story lines, and an ending that will blow you away, this book is a must read!