By Kelly Blewett for NPR affiliate WVXU –
John Young’s novel coming-of-age novel follows Jason Blake from adolescence through adulthood. The title of the book, When the Coin is in the Air, is about how people make life decisions. A college professor advises Jason to choose between two good options by tossing a coin in the air. How he wants the coin to fall, once it is in the air, will reveal which route to take. The novel presents many of Jason’s “coin in the air” moments. He decides which teaching job to take. He decides whether to join his brother in business. He decides whether to remain in Indiana or to leave. And along the way, he comes to terms with a deep-seeded aggression and competitive nature that bubbles below his genial surface.
The story is told with a first-person perspective. There are few descriptions; instead, it’s more of a straightforward narration of one young person’s development and the various influences that shaped him. There is clarity about who the characters are, especially Jason’s nuclear family, which includes his charismatic and successful older brother, his abrasive father, and his artistic, quiet mother. As Jason tries to find his place in the family and the world, he finds pieces of each of his family members within himself.
The book is also a page-turner. I found myself grabbing it to read a few chapters here and there, laughing at the characterization of the Indiana Teacher’s Conferences during the nineties, nodding my head in recognition at the long hours Jason put into preparing lessons and grading papers. Maybe I should mention that I teach writing for a living? I also appreciated the vividness of certain details, some of which helped me better understand my own family.
My grandfather, like Jason’s father, was an auto-mechanic in Pennsylvania, and often would scour junkyards for parts from wrecks. I recounted some of the gruesome details about the way Jason described the wrecks to my father—for instance, shoes flung asunder in the violence of a crash—and my father just nodded knowingly. I also shared that the young Jason digs around the broken-down cars for green stamps. I didn’t know what they were. My parents laughed and told me they furnished their apartment in graduate school on green stamps.
In all, this novel provides an atmospheric look into a particular corner of the rural Midwest that will resonate with many Cincinnatians. It tells a story not only about one young man’s journey to adulthood, but also about how traditional values like achievement and loyalty play out in one family over time.
“I appreciated reading this book because it took me deeply into Jason’s personal history and psychology. …I found much there that was relatable, simply because it was deeply human. I’m grateful John Young wrote this book. When the Coin is in the Air is a novel that will stay with you, remind you of a version of the Midwest that might be fading, and bring to mind key pivotal moments in your own life, moments that led you to flip a coin to decide which road to take—and to determine which way you really wanted to go.”
The love/hate relationship that Jason has with both his father and his brother is inevitable, I think, because they are his deepest models for himself. These men attract and repel him. “Where would I be without my brother?” he wonders in the middle of the novel. He can’t even fathom the thought. I appreciated reading this book because it took me deeply into Jason’s personal history and psychology. While I don’t have a brother and wasn’t raised in rural Indiana, I found much there that was relatable, simply because it was deeply human. I’m grateful John Young wrote this book. When the Coin is in the Air is a novel that will stay with you, remind you of a version of the Midwest that might be fading, and bring to mind key pivotal moments in your own life, moments that led you to flip a coin to decide which road to take—and to determine which way you really wanted to go. More information on this title can be found on our website, WVXU.org/AroundCincinnati.