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- Published on Amazon.com
The book cover of Born & Raised is one of my absolute favorites: a blown up photo of kids smoking. Cool. As soon as I saw it I loved it. Though teenage tumult is the emotional locomotive driving this story and its narrator, the shape of this novel is far more complex and dynamic, colored by a power trio of personalities: a father, daughter, and son.
Set across 2 time periods--the 1980s and then 1990s, Born & Raised is told from the perspective of Sean, a perceptive, bright and marginally naive teenager. The written voice we encounter in the novel seems to come from a slightly older Sean--perhaps speaking from a future just past the events depicted in the book, or 5, even 10 years on. The point is, he's a wiser and more sophisticated self than both his father and sister: this distance creates a compelling tension that frames events through humor and detachment.
There are no role models here, and virtually no conventionally redemptive scenes. The father figure is cuckolded in the opening pages of the book, losing his wife to a bookmobile driver. His daughter is a drug addict. Sean's best friend's nickname comes from his mother's sexual proclivities. Dogs run away. Kiddie pools are stolen from big box stores. An unused shack becomes a teenage satan worshippers den. Virginity is lost only to end in hysterics and weeping.
What slowly and hauntingly emerges is a sweeping, painterly portrayal of America. It's one well past the black and white imagery of Robert Frank, laying closer to the lurid viscera of Zoe Strauss photos. Punctuated by occasional references to Reagan, pop culture from the 80s and 90s, and loaded with brand names, the latent soul-deadening culture of consumer America is laid bare--and if not quite indicted, at least put in a queasy spotlight.
Given the class consciousness of this novel, there's a surprising restraint to the writing. Where someone like David Sedaris openly mocks the lower class towards comedic ends, Ross takes the opposite approach, deploying humor and biting satire to develop characters, flesh out feelings and sensitively support the inner lives of what are essentially desperate and sad people. The tonal result is understated, and wry--the perfect brush to paint this Southern Indiana world.
And what a world! The cultural and anthemic references sprinkled throughout `Born & Raised' celebrate and skewer the last vestiges of the American dream: a recurring Simon & Garfunkel album is hilariously introduced and discarded. In one brilliant passage a trailer's kitchen becomes a forum for references ranging from Delacroix to Rush to The Dark Crystal. Pulling from such a vast inventory, most writing of this caliber devolves into a post-modern grab-bag. But Ross is careful, and artfully suggests his allusions (Delacroix's famous `Liberty Leading the People` appears on a beer coaster, and is never cited by name), sandwiching them within a realism populated by truckers, ex-wives, trailer parks, and broken appliances.
I could go on. The layers of 'Born & Raised' run deep, and the characters--though few--are rich, believable, and in constant opposition to one another. You root for them, you curse them, you keep reading to see where they go next. Set in a landscape of mediocrity, ambitionlessness, and purposeful misery, it would be easy for this story to sink into bleakness and an existential grey mire. But Ross keeps dialogue snappy, interactions potent, and leaves enough mystery--and humor--behind motivations to intrigue the reader. There is a driving and colorful cinema to his writing that perfectly suits the subject matter. Details are shared, back stories are filled in, secondary characters are sketched and quickly whisked off stage: as I read I was consistently impressed with the economy of this writing. It is concise and propulsive, drawing us in and settling into a bare languor only where necessary.
BUY THIS BOOK. If the absurdity, pop culture, contradictions, untold personalities, excess, socio-economic inequities and hidden colors of middle America interest you in the slightest, this story will pull you in. It's more than coming of age or being a teenager or being a brother or a daughter--it's everything about this country that drives you crazy--told with wit, humor and lascerating satire.