A Portable Chaos
by E. M. Schorb
Hill House

"Rivers of rain, as when you look up through greenhouse glass on a rainy day, crossed his green eyes blotting out the blue dry sky overhead..."

Growing up in the 1950s, Jimmy Whistler demonstrates literary talent at a young age, resolving to dedicate his life to writing poetry. In Hawaii, he meets a girl named Leilani and falls in love. The two separate but later find themselves together in New York during a decade of social and cultural upheaval. Jimmy takes care of his aging mother and attempts to process the shock of his father's death. When he's offered a well-paying job writing copy for an ad agency, Jimmy is torn between financial security and the freedom to pursue his vocation unhindered.

The author's book is a bracingly written and often lyrical coming-of-age story, stylistically and thematically evoking the novels of Jack Kerouac or Bob Dylan's memoirs. The book brilliantly conjures the feeling of living in New York and New Jersey in the mid-'60s—the poverty, the music, and the seemingly endless procession of grifters peddling drugs and enlightenment. Reading this richly atmospheric novel, one can practically feel the dampness of the streets in the wee hours of the morning.

Much like Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Jimmy becomes an exemplar of the artistic life—the sort of person who hones his craft with monk-like devotion, unhindered by drama, romance, or national crisis. Lost and confused, he functions as a sort of mirror for that moment in the life of his country. The book is at its best when Jimmy's inner angst reflects the nation's mood. In the back half, the relational conflicts can begin to feel repetitive, and there is a scene involving roaches that may make those with entomophobia squirm. Overall, though, this is a melancholy, moving, and poetic book.

Winner of the 2004 Eric Hoffer Book Award General Fiction Category

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