Cincinnati novelist John Young’s debut novel “When The Coin Is In The Air” is impressive. Written in simple narrative prose, without fuss or mannered writing, the novel is the story (possibly autobiographical) of a young man growing up on a farm in small town in Indiana, who will end up living in Boston in this often moving, very powerful rite-of-passage book. People who live in cities often sentimentalize small town and/or farming life, and Young often speaks fondly and occasionally longingly of particularly the outdoors, hunting and fishing, family surrounded by cousins, friends from childhood onwards. The book is also a very dark meditation upon domestic abuse, the kind that usually remains hidden behind the closed doors of any family with secrets of this type.
The narrator’s mismatched parents and two sons are the immediate nuclear family of issue in the novel. The mother has given up much to marry and give her two sons a better future: that cliche is flushed out with grace and great clarity in Young’s novel, to excellent effect. The narrator, the younger of the two sons, not only idolizes his older brother, but is originally impressed by the antics of his father, who’d been a Greyhound bus driver until he came back to work the farm. The father’s obsessed with sports, hunting, men’s things, or as define by the mores of small town America in what appears to be the 70s or 80s. Football’s the game for high school boys in this family; the older brother’s a natural athlete, the younger develops partially into one. The problem is that no performance in any game–high school sports, of course, are very big things in small town America–is good enough for the father; we first get wind of the father’s terrible temper and internal rage after a football game, when he won’t stop screaming at his younger son, in front of the other members of the team and the coach. The reader is led to understand that this rage runs very deep; the father is at best abusive.
Meanwhile the mother, who has developed her own cottage industry where she makes women’s clothes for a variety of stores, encourages both sons to go to college (both got to Indiana University; Bloomington is the most liberal city in Indiana, much like Madison is in Wisconsin. But after the older son departs, the father’s rages at the younger son–who’s a lot like his mother–increases and becomes terrifying. When “the old man” teaches the narrator how to fight, the reader becomes aware that these skills will be essential later–though we’re not expecting that the father’s rage will be turned both against his wife, who eventually leaves him, and this son, who will become her protector. The psychology here is impressive; this divided family will become truly tragic, as the father is determined to get his wife back (in scenes of chilling violence) and to kill his younger son.
The passages in this novel describing this increasing violence are some of the novel’s best writing. The narrator’s also gone off to college, he’s also gone to England for a summer, to begin his life as a high school teacher; he starts to date, has a few girlfriends and the like, learns that his older brother, now married with a child, has learned how to sidestep the father, so that the narrator receives the worst of the father’s violence; he’s trying to kill off the “feminine” in the younger son, concurrently. That such domestic abuse has become the dominant trope in what might normally be just another Indiana farm family is what gives this novel such power as the mother runs from hiding place to hiding place (usually to other family members); the denouement between father and son is brilliantly rendered; it goes on for many chapters and pages, as the horrors increase, evidence of the father’s violence increasing. The reader’s just not expecting this ongoing violence, ongoing horror, and how it affects the narrator’s relationships with women, too. You can’t help but remember Greek tragedies when you read this novel, and that’s high praise, indeed.
I quite liked the way major decisions in the narrator’s life are achieved by a toss of a coin; a friendly women at college has taught him that as the coin tosses mid-air, your heart will tell you then which choice you truly want, and this method serves the narrator in good stead repeatedly throughout the novel. Even after both (creatively talented) sons end up in advertising together in Indianapolis, the narrator’s ultimate freedom comes when he no longer wants to live in his brother’s shadow, and takes off for Boston to live a completely freely chosen life. At last.
The power in the novel rests with the author’s abilities not only to describe the best and worst of small town life, and the dynamics between siblings, between mothers and sons and fathers and sons, but in it slow development of the father’s rages and how it spills over into every family member. The reader will want to disbelieve what’s about to happen, and John Young, the author, builds to this ferocious climax with such immense skill, that you realize you’re in the hands and mind of a great psychologist, and, after all , the novel itself is mainly about psychology, after all, which thus places Young’s novel in a great tradition; it has elements of 19th century novels while being concurrently quite contemporary; it’s a quite powerful novel and an excellent debut.