Modern day human trafficking has its origins in the African slave trade, the first law against slavery didn’t come into effect until the British parliament passed an anti-slavery bill in 1807. After the African save trade was stopped there was the white slavery, which concentrated on the exploitation and international movement of women and girls for use in the sex trade. Now a days it accounts for an estimated 75-80% of all human trafficking and of that 50% of victims procured for the sex trade are children, which brings on to this months book. Its Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus (www.michaelgrothaus.com) published by Orenda books (www.orendabooks.co.uk ) in March 2016.
Boy can Michael Grothaus write! In this, his debut novel, he shows that he can do it all. Explicit sex, nauseating violence, page-turning thriller, tender romance, heart-breaking loss, pitch perfect characterisation – it’s all here. But the ‘piece de resistance’, the outstanding gem, of this novel is Grothaus’s empathetic and insightful portrayal of Jerry, it’s narrator and main character.
When we first meet Jerry he’s working as a Colour Imaging Specialist for the Art Institute of Chicago. Translation – he spends his day in a dingy basement digitally adjusting colours on reproductions of the Institute’s paintings. The job is “one step above a peon and a thousand levels below anyone who matters”. He got the job because Roland, a co-worker, is a friend of his mother.
Jerry’s personal life is also pretty typical of the average twenty-something first-world male. He lives alone amid the debris of his unwashed clothes, is sex-obsessed, lies about having a girlfriend and suffers from bouts of depression. But life has thrown Jerry an extra curve-ball: psychotic hallucinations. At times Jerry – and the reader – doesn’t know if what he’s seeing is real or imaginary.
When Roland is murdered and a Van Gough painting loaned to the Art Institute turns up in Jerry’s apartment, his mundane life takes a turbo-charged swerve into the unknown. Enter Epiphany Jones. A darkly ominous outsider who lives by her wits and has a direct line of communication to God. Jerry first assumes she’s an hallucination – he’s seen her before in a recurring dream. She turns out to be all too real and is convinced that Jerry, and only Jerry, can help her to find and rescue her daughter from sex slavery. Bizarre – but Epiphany can prove Jerry’s innocence so he has little choice but to play along with her.
What follows is a fast-paced thriller that brings us on a tail-spinning journey through the very dark world of child sex trafficking. Grothaus does not spare us. Graphic violence; nauseating exploitative sex; victims murdered, broken and depersonalized by vicious cruelty. Stuff that I would usually run a mile from. But Grothaus’s narrative style is compelling. A truly talented scene-setter (he has a degree in filmmaking), he hooks you in by expertly sketching a sympathetic character and then, wham! Hits you in the solar plexus. But, unlike the vast majority of sex-and-violence writing that comes across as warped fantasy, when Grothaus causes your gut to wrench and the bile to rise, he also has brought your brain to the very clear understanding that this awfulness does happen. IS happening – in your city, likely only a few kilometers away.
How does Jerry fare in all of this? Well, Jerry remains very much Jerry. Grothaus deftly avoids Jerry morphing into a competent, capable, adult. And this is the clue to Grothaus’s ability to get the reader to keep reading through some pretty harrowing material. We’re already emotionally invested in the ‘hanging-onto-sanity-by-his-fingertips’ Jerry, so we have to see how he actually does hang on to his sanity in this grim world. He grows up a little, but he largely remains the same confused, bewildered anti-hero that we first meet. His stratagems and schemes to get out of the mess he’s in invariably fail. He constantly digs more holes for himself. Only to be dragged, usually unwillingly, out of danger by street-wise Epiphany.
Interestingly, Epiphany’s character doesn’t change much either. But as we learn her back-story and see her navigate the tides of the sex-trade underworld our perspective changes. This is not the world for a trusting, approachable character who plays by the rules. Believing that you have an all-powerful God on your side is a very valuable mind-set in this nasty territory.
I do have a few quibbles, however. Grothaus packs too much into this one book. He could have brought everything to a conclusion much earlier. One half of the book is set in the US and Mexico, the other half in Portugal & Cannes. I got the distinct impression that Jerry was brought to Portugal largely because Grothaus wanted to use location material he had from visiting there. The thriller plot also stalls for several chapters while Jerry falls in love with a local girl. The writing is still very good and the characterizations were more than enough to hold my interest. But I thought I was reading a different book.
And the Cannes section? Here Grothaus’s characterisation skill falters and the plot-line frays more than a little. He doesn’t quite ‘nail’ the narcissistic, self-aggrandising scumbags of the movie business who assume an entitlement to destroy the lives of others to fill the gaping hole that once held a soul. And the working out of the plot dénouement becomes far, far to complicated. I’d need a 3-D model of the mansion it takes place in to follow it! It might work on film, but not on paper.
But none of this takes away from the absolutely wonderful portrayal of Jerry – the inadequate mess who tries so hard to get things right and, despite (often self generated) knockbacks and pretty tough odds, keeps trying. I still get teary-eyed about how he blamed himself for his sister’s death. I want to shout out “It wasn’t your fault, Jerry – you were only a kid”. That’s how much Michael Grothaus reeled me in.
Grothaus’s writing ability really shouldn’t come as any surprise. He’s an established journalist known for his writing about internet subcultures in the digital age and with roots in the film industry. He also knows his topic, having spent years researching sex trafficking. True to the mantra ‘write what you know’, he even worked in The Art Institute of Chicago.
In an Irish Times article he wrote earlier this year, he described his motivation for the book “…you write a first-person debut novel about a guy who has a porn addiction and some readers are just going to think it’s autobiographical. I get that. I do. But what those same readers are right about is the anger. That dissatisfaction Jerry feels? That comes from me – at least part of it. And it’s that dissatisfaction, I believe, that is essential to being a good writer…. Dissatisfaction, used wisely, fuels action. It’s what gets you in front of your keyboard to write that story that holds a mirror up to society so it can see itself as it truly is..” .
His first book is a really good read – I’m recommending it to every teenage boy I know (Jerry as a role-model – Yes!). Let’s hope there’s lots more to come.
Reviewed by Clare O’Connor