Today, I cooked pot roast. It was supposed to be a “roast,” for this week’s Friday Night Dinner. However, I realized that I don’t own a roasting rack. A quick trip to Walmart revealed that they have the same problem. I’m sure I could have gone to Kohl’s or Target after and been successful eventually in my search, but we had already spent time waiting at the mechanic shop for our car, and Chomper’s threshold for errands had been reached. Pot roast it was, so we’ll have to cook and discuss another form of roast next week.
Instead, I decided to review the book I just finished, Lee Child’s newest Jack Reacher novel, Make Me. My husband introduced me to the Reacher series a few years ago. Being mostly stuck in my niche of literary fiction, I would have never picked them up on my own. Naturally, I’m now hooked. It’s sort of like an addiction to Criminal Minds or Breaking Bad. (Only one of those is true of me: guess which one?) Of the twenty Reacher novels, I’ve probably read about half. Like all character series, some books are better than others, and sometimes I think that it would do Child good to take an extra year off to mull over some better story lines. All are page-turners, though, and this current thriller ranks up on the higher end of the rating scale.
Jack Reacher is a former MP (military police) who currently is jobless and not looking, sort of a drifter. He’s described as an imposing figure, someone who would have to shop in the big and tall sections. Not very handsome, but evidently attractive enough, as we’ll see by another stereotype in a bit. He doesn’t own a house, a car, or really anything but the clothes on his back, which he changes about every four days or as needed and trashes the old in lieu of doing laundry or carrying luggage of any kind. Very singular. He always mentions carrying a toothbrush in his pocket, but that’s it. He travels mainly by train or bus and wanders the country, stopping off whenever his interest is piqued. He professes himself with no agenda, content to walk the roads of small-town America and be an observer of human nature. Luckily for him, this life doesn’t get too boring, as trouble always seems to find him and his special skill sets as an Army MP. To quote Gilmore girls, he’s “a regular Jack Kerouac.” As I’ve never read any of Kerouac’s books, I looked him up. Fascinating stuff! First of all, he grew up in Lowell, MA, a place where I also lived for a year. It’s a textile mill town, and I know people who used to work in the mills… later than Kerouac’s time, but perhaps their parents were contemporaries. Another item of interest is that he wrote his best-known novel On the Road on a three-week writing binge on a single scroll of paper, after years of notes and mental preparation for it. According to biography.com, “he termed this style of writing ‘spontaneous prose’ and compared it to the improvisation of his beloved jazz musicians. Revision, he believed, was akin to lying and detracted from the ability of prose to capture the truth of a moment.” I feel a kinship to the philosophy. Although I never fleshed it out as he did, this has always been my writing process. As an English major, I could never follow the process recommended to us of free thinking, first drafts, second drafts, revisions, more revisions, etc. I rarely put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) until I had at least the thesis of the paper completely thought through. That’s the blueprint, of course, and the rest came as I wrote. Never revised except for grammatical checks and minor details. It’s probably not the best way to write, and I often felt that I was taking the lazy way out, but it seemed to work for me at the time.
I’m sure it’s true of most character series that there is a certain amount of repetition and recurrent quirks of writing. Even as a middle schooler, I remember railing at the fact that the first three chapters of The Baby-sitters Club were almost carbon copies of each other. Child’s writing is no exception. Some repetitions and/or stereotypes are essential to the ongoing story; they flesh out Reacher’s character. Reacher fits the bill of the archetype of the white cowboy hat. A regular good guy. Has his shady past, to be sure, but serves justice where justice is due and sweeps in to the rescue with a daring plan. For the purpose of continuity and character description, then, I can overlook the annoyances of lack of variety and repetition. Also for that reason, I was very upset with the casting for the first Jack Reacher movie. Tom Cruise? Are you kidding me? Short Tom Cruise with the pearly whites? He doesn’t fit the Reacher stereotype at all! Surprisingly, I really liked his portrayal of the character. He didn’t flash his pretty-boy smile even once. Anyway, other writing quirks are just that– quirks– and a couple of those do bother me. One is that a plot development in every novel is that Reacher ends up hooking up with the (recently met) female associate who is working the case with him. I mean, really? That’s a gender stereotype we don’t need. The other quirk that bothers me is that Child’s writing is full of sentence fragments. Which usually begin with the word “which.” (See what I did there?) Now, sentence fragments can be a very effective tool for emphasis, especially in journalistic-style writing that is full of action. Not knocking them en masse. Used consistently, however, with the same primary leading pronoun, they become glaringly obvious. Which detracts from the story. (Yes, I’m going to beat this to death.)
Let’s talk about how food is used in the Reacher novels. Like many other categories in the series, it is used as a stereotype to further describe Reacher’s character and values. How does it do all that? Well, Reacher is a simple man with salt-of-the-earth values. He searches out small towns with old fashioned Main Streets, mom and pop stores, and well-worn diners with hometown cooking.
Come to think of it, Reacher would most certainly patronize Luke’s Diner if he ever wandered through Stars Hollow. It’s just his kind of place. No frills; gruff but honest service; and simple, hearty food. I believe that Reacher would approve of my pot roast, too. It’s a good, basic, filling meal, straight out of America’s heartland. As my husband’s Grandpa says, “That’s gooooood groceries!” In this, the twentieth Reacher novel, he mentions that he ordered “his default breakfast:” pancakes, eggs, and bacon. I found this amusing, for the qualifier “default” was unnecessary. Anyone who has ever read another Reacher novel already knows this is the default. Along with coffee– cups and cups and cups of coffee. Anytime Reacher stops, it’s to get four or five more cups of coffee. For lunch and dinner, he also prefers diners or road stops, eating greasy hamburgers and the like. No green stuff for him. In this particular story, his female counterpart orders a salad, described as such: she “turned attacking her salad into a shared misadventure, with widened eyes and about six different kinds of half-smiles, ranging from rueful and self-effacing to amused anticipation, as Reacher picked up his burger and tried to take a bite.” Reacher, of course, would never make such a tactical error as ordering a rest stop salad. It’s amazing that he can stay in as good of health as he does, with a diet like that. If we are to believe that his life in-between novels is congruent with his life during novels, he spends most nights in bare-bones motels and orders all of the food he eats. Frugal as he is, the lifestyle doesn’t seem sustainable for many years. Will Lee Child eventually lead Reacher to settle down? Serial characters aren’t known for their development, so we shall see.
The nice thing about serial characters such as Jack Reacher, is that you don’t necessarily have to start at the beginning of the series. Each story contains enough exposition to be a stand-alone novel. In Make Me, Reacher gets off the train at a town called Mother’s Rest, merely because the name intrigues him. No one in town seems to know the origin of the name, but Reacher will soon find out that “rest” is a perfect antonym to what he will experience during his time there. If you are looking for a fun thriller that keeps you guessing, but probably won’t keep you up at night (unless it’s to read just a few more pages!), Jack Reacher may be your man.