Darren Greer has been silent since his 2004 novel, Still Life with June – an innovative, fabulous novel that earned him plenty of awards and praise. But this June, his follow-up novel, 10 years later, won him the $20,000 Thomas Head Raddall Award for the “best fiction out of Atlantic Canada this year.”
It’s called Just Beneath My Skin, and its slick, highly readable style makes the book easy to read and easy to like, as it propels readers through a gripping story told in short chapters that encourage binge reading. The narrative is split nearly chapter for chapter between Jake and his son Nathan; circumstance has kept a distance between them that neither of them wants there.
At the core of the novel is a dangerous small-town hardcase named Johnny Lang. Jake, like everyone, is scared of Johnny but acts friendly to stay on his good side. We learn immediately how quickly people can fall from Johnny’s good graces (he killed his own father), and we learn Jake is a new man, fresh back in town, in a good place. Maybe Johnny — capable of anything — will wanna knock him down a peg.
The heart of the novel is the clear bond established between Jake and his son Nathan, who just want the best for each other but can’t, in that town, have it. Will they get out of there together, or is all the foreshadowing that something sinister is going to happen on Jake’s trip home going to come to fruition? And if so, what is this impending fate? Those questions are precisely how Greer keeps his readers on the hook, and tugs them along.
Greer has a gift for crafting believable and unique characters: the novel excels in delivering its characters just as they need to be delivered for us to root for Jake and be convinced of Johnny’s capability to commit violent crimes. Also, the fact Jake is not entirely a saint makes him a more unique hero for a novel.
The title – Just Beneath the Skin – presents itself as a multifaceted metaphor for the potential laying in all of us, that can so easily be stunted by circumstance, like who our mother is and where we’re raised. The son , Nathan, loves the fact his middle name is Alexander, after Alexander the Great. He imagines that potential in him — wedged between his first and last names, the way he imagines a bit of his idolized father in him “just beneath my skin.”
Our hometowns make us. Or they break us down and hold us down. Or they hold us in place. And few novels explore, portray, and ponder this so well. Greer’s approach is to tackle not the character of place, but the people of a place. By going chapter for chapter of the dad and the boy, we see what their small town, and their familial circumstances, are doing to this father and son duo.
There is a slight lull in momentum for about 20 pages in part II of the book – a series of seemingly random reflections from its narrators – but they add nuance and breathing room in setting up the ending of this solid pageturner, and what a fast-paced suspenseful ending it is: the last ten chapters are taut paragraph-length breathtakers tying it all together in a cinematic conclusion that’ll last with you well into the next book you start. It comes fast, hard, and shocking as a gunshot.