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Jake's Run (2006)
I have to admit to a certain sense of dread whenever a friend, family member, or acquaintance gives us a book to review. On the one hand, it's not as if their success or their pride depends on getting a good review here, but, on the other, one would like to be able to say nice things about peoples' efforts. We've been fortunate so far, but sooner or later someone is bound to pen a stinker. Happily, Jake's Run, by Jerome R. Mahoney, is worthy of praise irrespective of our having been co-workers at GDT. Not just a sharply observed novel about life in a rapidly changing Vermont town, Mr. Mahoney has achieved that rarest of all things: it's genuinely funny.
The source material for the novel is rich in comic possibilities. The region surrounding Dartmouth College has recently been classified by the Census Bureau as a micropolis, indeed, one of the most populous micropolises in the nation. The micropolis designation refers to an area that does not have a major urban center but does have at least one town in the 10,000 to 50,000 range. They are generally characterized by a real mix of suburban and rural communities spreading across a series of small towns. They are discrete economic entities, such that residents mostly work in the area rather than commuting to larger cities, which leads to a sense of common identity. Thus, despite being made up of towns on both sides of the Connecticut River and despite covering some considerable geographical distance, the people of this region refer to it as the Upper Valley, having defined it long before the bureaucrats caught up. However, at the same time that residents recognize themselves to be members of the same exurban community, the blending of college campus with local farms with high tech and computer companies with trailer parks and hunting camps with new subdivisions and colonial homesteads with strip malls and country stores and so on and so forth is, not suprisingly, often uneven and conflicts of culture and vision are not uncommon. This, after all, is a region where a Senatorial election turned on the fact that one candidate--a flatlander who'd moved here--had no idea how many teats a cow has. That's not exactly a typical threshhold question for entering the world's greatest deliberative body, but no one here much minds being atypical.
The conceit of Mr. Mahoney's novel then is that a prize bull, the Jake of the title, escapes from the fields of a crusty Vermont farmer, Bingo Reilly, and goes wandering about town--a town very much like Woodstock, VT--which brings him, and the owner who sets out in search of him, into contact with every strata of the local society. In particular, they end up all too thoroughly intertwined with the neighboring Hickams, wealthy Manhattanites who've relocated to the area--for a part of the year anyway--and built extravagantly. But the respective odysseys of animal and owner also end up incorporating a big wedding, a flower show, the annual dart tournament, the local press, a land transaction, and much else. An at each stop Mr. Mahoney gets to play the various citizens of "Woodbine" off against each other to great comic effect.
The natural comparison would be to the novels of Dartmouth professor Ernest Hebert, who has, over the last quarter century, written a brilliant series of novels set in the imaginary town of Darby, NH and delved into the same culture clash. The structure of the novel though is reminiscent of John Cheever's famous short story, The Swimmer, which you probably had to read in school. Jake's travels through the yards of Woodbine summons the Swimmer's journey through the polls of suburbia. Except, of course, that where Cheever was morose, Mr. Mahoney writes with a zest for life and a chuckle in the belly as he conveys the follies and foibles of characters who will seem awfully familiar to anyone who knows the area. And by the end of the book, with unlikely friendships and alliances made and Jake safely returned home, the reader can believe that none of the social friction inherent in the suburban/rural, academic/agrarian mix is likely to gum up the works too badly, so long as everyone keeps their sense of humor and a reasonably open mind. It's a hopeful, human, and very humorous first novel.
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