Trigger, by Susan Vaught
I read this book on recommendation from a writer friend of mine. She said it’d be a fine study in voice. Indeed, Susan Vaught set a big task for herself when she decided to write Jersey Hatch’s story in the first person, because Jersey’s brain-damaged. His internal editor is on the fritz, so he has to work really hard to not just say whatever’s on his mind at the moment. Usually it’s something harmless–Jersey’s a smart guy, and he’s prone to free-association, so the things that come out of his mouth usually involve random words. “Bubble wrap,” “glue,” “Frankenstein,” “sock.”
But this isn’t just a study in voice–Jersey’s telling us his story because he needs to find out what happened to make him brain-damaged. When we first meet him, he’s just left the convalescence house where he’s been working on things like fine motor skills and how to cope with his new set of–or lack of–skills. We find out early on that he used to be a star athlete, and that he had friends, and, perhaps most important, a best friend who now hates him. Jersey’s life back in the real world, which starts out as a harmless list of to-do items (“Talk to Todd and find out why he hates me” is number two on the list), turns out to be a much bigger question: Why would a star athlete with friends and a great future ahead shoot himself? Because that’s the other thing we find out early on: That Jersey is disabled because he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The thing is, Jersey’s new addled brain has also lost, along with its internal editor, a whole lot of memory.
Vaught does a really admirable job of letting us into Jersey’s jumbled brain. We see all of Jersey’s faults, glimpses of who he was before the accident, some of the personality traits that may have led him to pull the trigger in the first place. We sense that there is something that’s just out of reach for him, some comprehension that’s so basic as to be neatly hidden in the everyday fabric of his life. Vaught also paints a complete picture of Jersey’s life from school to home to neighborhood. Although there are scenes that would have been easy for Vaught to gloss over because they would have been too hard to explain from Jersey’s point of view (his mother’s emotional response to Jersey’s return, for instance), Vaught senses the importance of Jersey’s reaction to these things and makes them work.
By the end of the book, Jersey does find out why he shot himself. The answer isn’t anything you’d expect. But this, too, is tricky, and Vaught executes the final denouement very well.
The story moves fast, and well, and the story arc is tight. Jersey’s likable, someone I’d want to be friends with, a guy with a self-deprecating sense of humor who you’d want around, even if he does say funny things and came with a past damaged enough to want to blow a hole in his head. In the great tradition of Chris Crutcher, whose main characters are never perfect people, comes Jersey Hatch. Trigger is well worth a read.