Short Fiction Friday: Jack in the Green by Charles de Lint
PROS: Interesting use of the Robin Hood mythos; novella length allows for the fleshing out of some elements of the story; great cover and interior illustrations by Charles Vess, the book itself is a beautiful edition, typical of Subterranean Press’ standards.
CONS: Appears to espouse an overly simplistic and destructive redistribution of wealth ideology; plot line of destined lovers is jarring against a background of violence; shines a light on real problems without offering any real solutions; the fairy-tale wish-fulfillment ending is hard to stomach against the plight of mundane world characters.
BOTTOM LINE: Given my familiarity with Charles de Lint’s work and his long history of tackling difficult subjects like poverty and abuse and inequality with honesty, creativity and a sense of hope amidst despair, I was wholly unprepared for a story that exposed real issues in a cliched fashion while offering nothing in the way of hope, with the exception of characters who were not worthy of the hope they receive. In the end this felt like little more than a revenge fantasy built on a very thin mythical foundation. If it is meant to be an indictment on the Robin Hood mythos, it is incredibly successful. If it has another purpose, it falls well short of its aim.
The following monologue on Jack in the Green may contain copious spoilers.
Maria Martinez is a young woman who lives in the Santo del Vado Viejo neighborhood. Hers is a world of poverty, prejudice, gang violence and drug cartels juxtaposed against the rich, gated communities in which she earns her living as a maid. She has heard of a recent string of robberies in these gated communities, a circumstance that is only surprising because of the rumors that those conducting the robberies are using their illicit gains to help those in need. One day Maria looks out the window of a house she is cleaning to see this gang, all wearing green hoodies, breaking into the house next door. Among the many that Maria doesn’t recognize is someone she knows very well, her best friend Luz Chaidez, who parted from Maria at some time in their past. Maria and Luz shared a bond of magic, something Luz believed in much more strongly than Maria. Now that Luz is back, Maria will find herself pulled back into her orbit by an attraction to the apparent leader of this band of self-professed noble thieves.
Charles de Lint makes no secret of the fact that he is re-purposing the Robin Hood mythos. That point is made early on. This is the one area of Jack in the Green that is both fascinating and ultimately disappointing. The fascination comes from the way in which the use of the mythos sets up the idea of realms other than our own. It is disappointing in ways that will be addressed soon. If, as I stated in the beginning, Jack in the Green is meant solely to challenge the romanticism of the story of Robin Hood then it does succeed admirably. However, there was not enough evidence to support this idea. Regardless, it reinforces the power of fiction by challenging readers to think.
There is nothing implicitly wrong with the idea of fiction making a person feel uncomfortable. That discomfort can be the catalyst towards meaningful change when it challenges long-held and harmful ideas about race, gender, socio-economic inequality, etc. Jack in the Green does just that in its examination of both the plight of the poor Hispanic community and in the way that wealth is distributed. The discomfort it generates should be worth a deeper look. Unlike much of Charles de Lint’s fiction in his popular Newford stories, Jack in the Green falls well short of saying anything meaningful about these issues and instead presents them in such a one-dimensional way that it is hard to be anything but disappointed that the attempt was made at all. The characters, one and all, are fully convinced that because they are stealing from rich bankers and corporate executives who profit illicitly off of the abuse of the common man, that revenge by robbing them and redistributing their wealth is not only noble but will somehow ignite lasting change. The subtleties and complexities of economics, governmental policies, etc. are nowhere to be seen here.
Granted, the point of view of the reader is from a couple of nineteen-year-olds and a handful of beings who are not familiar with twenty-first century world systems. That being said, the overly simplistic justifications given by Luz and her band of merry men is insulting to the intelligence of the contemporary reader. When Maria is so easily persuaded that their actions are justified — largely, it appears, because of her “love at first sight” attraction to Jack — the frustration grows ever stronger. There are moments where de Lint seems to be saying that the ends do not justify the means, however the characters who do attempt to voice this are Maria, who as I mentioned is easily persuaded to act otherwise, and an older woman whose religious convictions are initially held out as her reason for rejecting stolen money until it is more clearly shown that it is her fear of gang reprisal that bolsters her convictions. Real, genuine, conflicted characters are in short supply here.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a result of the constraints of short stories, however; there are collections full of much shorter Charles de Lint stories in which he introduces complex, real characters with real problems who struggle with hope and tragedy in authentic, meaningful ways. I was also left with the feeling that the portrayal of the poor Hispanic working class lost all its potency because it read as largely stereotypical once it became apparent that nothing meaningful was going to be addressed regarding the very real conditions that men and women of every minority face the world over. Charles de Lint’s stories are never fairy tales in the sense that everything works out right. “Happily Ever After” is not present, nor, however, is a “we are all doomed” mentality. Instead his stories, more often than not, mete out hope and healing in believable doses in a world filled with tragedy and pain.
Jack in the Green, by contrast, offers up the idea that the protagonist is somehow Jack’s soul mate, the Maid Marian to his Robin Hood, who belonged in his realm but was instead in ours. What would normally be a sweet love story is soured by the presentation of violence against the gang members, with the justification the violence was deserved, and thus we should feel nothing for them, except perhaps a vicarious exaltation that the bad guys got what was coming to them.
I have read other reviews that resoundingly praise the novella, so I understand that my view is in the minority. Examining the novella as a whole, I simply cannot find as much evidence for the positive ideas attributed to Jack in the Green as I do evidence for a rather juvenile love story set against a backdrop of hollow representations of sad truths that exist in our world today with little or nothing offered in the way of hope. Unless, of course, you happen to buy into the notion that robbing from the rich and giving to the poor would not only be an effective way to redistribute wealth but would somehow magically not cause any changes that would ultimately harm the poor in even greater measure. The only moment of purposeful examination of wealth and poverty comes in a throwaway line where Maria talks about how her roommate always gives to the poor and how that influenced Maria to begin doing the same. The idea that humanity helps one another lawfully is passed over quickly for the more glamorous idea of sticking it to the rich.
Jack in the Green is a very disappointing outing from an author I admire. I am unclear why Subterranean Press felt the story was worthy of a special edition. It is 2014 and readers, particularly genre readers, are more cognizant of the problems with the portrayal of culture in older stories. Additionally readers expect stories that bring up significant concerns to address those concerns in a manner that is not clichéd, devoted to stereotypes, or insultingly simple-minded. Jack in the Green is a story that had the potential to not only reinvent the Robin Hood mythos but also portray creative solutions to very real problems. Unfortunately it is little more than the shell of a story built on a well-worn and unsteady foundation.
Filed under: Book Review
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