Reviewed by Nik Korpon
Sequels and prequels are tricky things. The Original gives us the characters, shows us the architecture, let us live inside that world for a while. Sure, there are some interesting narrative-alleyways to lurk in for a while, but we keep the map the way it is for a reason: It’s perfect.
Jack Wakes Up is the original, in all its drug-trafficking, Mustang-crashing badassery. In it, we get the broad strokes of Junius Ponds. He’s a big bad motherfucker, and that’s all we really need him to be. After all, it’s a Jack Palms book; we’re there for him. Junius is just an interesting diversion, right? Still, there’s something about him, something that shimmers in the corner of our eye, something we can’t ignore.
Young Junius is, obviously, the origin story of Junius. But it’s more, so much more. It’s somewhere between an accomplished crime epic, a coming-of-age story and a candid sociological examination of the early 80s inner-city crack epidemic. Although this is a large order for any novel to fill, Young Junius is supported by the largest and most complex cast of characters this side of The Wire.
Like all great stories, the motivation is clear and of utter import. And, as in all great stories, it ain’t going to be easy. We open on Junius, leaving his brother Temple’s funeral. Temple has just been gunned down, and Junius sets out with his friend Elf to avenge his brother’s death. They head towards the Rindge Towers, a notoriously heavy-dealing area. When they arrive, they’re confronted by Lamar, one of the soldiers. As things in the Towers are wont to do, shit gets bad quick and Lamar gets got. Junius and Elf flee to Junius’s mom’s house. She can’t lose another son and gives them money to escape to her family in New York, to get out of Boston and never come back. On the ride to the bus station, though, they run into more trouble and Junius realizes he can’t let Temple’s killer go free. They head back to Purgatory, to the gaping maw of the Towers, and descend.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons to The Wire, which is never a bad thing, but Young Junius is in no way derivative; rather, it is just that accurate in its depictions. Baltimore, Boston, LA: Projects is projects, and though the types of trees may change, the game is the game. Harwood does an excellent job of humanizing every character, of imbuing them with idiosyncratic characteristics and not allowing them to fall under the simple umbrella of ‘drug dealer.’ It’s a tough feat to juggle, especially given the number of characters—in addition to using both Christian names and nicknames—and one could easily fall on stock-quirky characteristics. The people who populate this tower, though, they all feel like real people. Through shifting perspectives, we catch glimpses of their personal lives, all painted with prose and description so economical that the narrative pace never wavers. These vignettes create a greater emotional attachment to the characters, and we feel each death, seeing how the ripples will affect the families we’ve come to know.
Besides the plethora of diverse characters, one of the most impressive things is the mood Harwood employs. In the first scene, we can faintly hear the ring of a funeral bell, and its somber tone echoes over the next four-hundred pages. There’s never any over-the-top melancholy or cheap tricks of that ilk, just the ever-lurking shadow of impending doom, weaving its tendrils through the Towers’ stairwells, past apartments with broken doors and slumped bodies. While we’re never really worried that Junius will die—another peril of prequels Harwood averts—he’s put in situations so dire and intense that Junius has no choice but to morph from the teenager he is now to the kingpin we know he will become. With the exception of Junius’s mom and Miss Emma—there’s always an oasis in every moral desert—no one in the novel is really that good, yet no one is really that bad. This creates a surprising amount of sympathy for the characters, rekindling the nature versus nurture debate along the way. Does violence beget more violence? Can anyone escape? Is it a cultural flaw or personal? Is Junius even at fault? There is the sense that Junius has the option to either lose his innocence or his life. Can he be blamed for his choice?
If the goal of a crime novel is to drop the reader into the middle of a dangerous scenario, scare the crap out of them, then safely pull them out, Young Junius achieves it in spades. But to simply cram the novel into a one-shot category does it a great disservice. Books like this substantiate the claim that crime fiction is as relevant and important as any other. It’s the mark of an important author, just beginning to hit his stride.