Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Good Neighbors - Ryan David Jahn


Good Neighbors
Ryan David Jahn
Penguin

Crime Fiction
 
This amazing novel covers a little over two hours’ time, from roughly 4 a.m. to a little after 6 a.m. on March 13, 1964.  During that time, the author tells the story of Kat Marino (a stand-in for real-life murder victim Kitty Genovese) and various neighbors who live in her apartment complex.  On her way home from her job as a bartender, Kat sees a strange man in the shadows near her garden apartment door.  The man has a knife and a compulsion to kill that even he doesn’t understand. 

Even though it’s four in the morning, there are plenty of people awake and aware, for various reasons.  Many of them hear her screams.  Not one of them calls the police.  It sounds simple, but the reality is far from it.  Each one of the neighbors, regular people all, has his/her own reasons for not making the call.  Many are caught up in personal issues.  There’s a teenager who cares for his dying mother while worrying about reporting for the Vietnam War draft in the morning.  There’s a man caught up in the unexpected aftermath of a wife-swapping session.  There’s a woman who finally confronts her husband about an affair.  There’s Frank, a man in an interracial marriage (this is the 60s, he’s a “colored” man) out on an errand for his wife.  And there’s the attacker, who wonders for us all why no one stopped him.  The overall effect is not unlike “Rear Window” in reverse: instead of looking in, we’re inside all the apartments, looking out on the courtyard.
 
All of these disparate stories and more swirl around Kat, as she’s attacked and heroically tries to make it to safety while she waits for help to come.  The whole is unsettling, disturbing, infuriating, moving, and very real.  Each character is a real person with real problems, just trying to get through the night in their own ways.  They’re all fighting for their lives; Kat fights on a much more heartbreaking and visceral level.  The novel is part crime story and part time capsule, giving the reader a real look at what it was like to live during that time.  Some things have changed, others seem strangely immutable. 
 
After Kitty Genovese was murdered, there was an outcry over the cruel inhumanity of an entire apartment complex hearing her screams for help but doing nothing.  The author of this astonishing debut novel makes each character’s decision not to get involved terrifyingly understandable, given their circumstances.  The novel presents Kat’s ordeal in awful detail, moment by moment, allowing the reader to come to know her through her suffering.  The most stunning realization for the reader is that, while it’s still horrible that no one came to her aid, we come to know and understand her good neighbors, and realize that they’re all simply and tragically human.  Any one of them could be any one of us.  All of them are, unknowingly, bound together by the events of the night.    This is an excellent novel.  Perhaps not for the faint of heart, but for those who can take it, it will stay with you for some time.  I truly cannot recommend this highly enough.
 
Rating: 10
July 2011
ISBN# 978-0-14-311896-1 (trade paperback)

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