Hey, Tipper Gore! You've been slacking on the job. You managed to get adult warning labels plastered on every potentially offensive CD from here to Bangladesh, but you totally missed the boat on all the thousands of volumes of smutty contemporary literature produced every year. What if this stuff fell into the hands of innocent children? Huh, Tipper? What then?
Take Kelly Braffet's debut novel, Josie and Jack, which hit the shelves last month, as one prime example. This book is so sick, twisted and filthy, I had to take a bath in a tub of V8 just to wash the stink of it off me—and my wife says she can still smell it in my hair.
Worst of all, this book masquerades as an ordinary novel suitable for decent, God-fearing readers. Check out the cover, which depicts two skinny adolescents holding hands above a cut-out of a crisp white lily. What could possibly be more innocent? Don't be fooled. Hide the children. Form a committee headed by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Light your torches. Storm the castle. But, please, make no mistake—this book should be withheld from the hands of impressionable children.
If you're a consenting adult, however, I have to admit that Josie and Jack is a wicked dirty pleasure to read. I don't want to mislead you. Braffet's blistering first novel isn't exactly pornographic. She includes very few graphic scenes. Actually, most of the book is downright subtle. Even so, a smelly undercurrent of perversion runs through almost every page. Take a good deep whiff because this is high-quality degenerate fiction at its finest.
Beautiful 16-year-old Josie and her equally gorgeous 18-year-old brother, Jack, live in a decaying mansion just outside a small town in western Pennsylvania. Their mother committed suicide several years ago, and their raging alcoholic father works as a physicist at a small college several hours away.
Dear old dad rents an apartment near the college, only returning home on weekends to check in on his kids. While he's gone, his two inseparable children are left largely to their own devices. Because their cranky father distrusts conventional education, he home-schools them by leaving behind piles of books and assignments that they're obligated to complete while he's gone.
Both Josie and Jack are incredibly bright. Josie learned to read ancient Greek by the time she was 6 years old. Jack listens to Wagner ... for fun. Neither of them has ever read Alice in Wonderland. Both know more about quantum mechanics than most graduate physics students.
Josie and Jack, however, also somehow manage to drink copious amounts of hard alcohol and smoke pounds and pounds of weed. From the first page, Braffet makes it clear that all these two kids have are each other. Isolated from the rest of the town, they form a bond that goes well beyond that of ordinary siblings.
At first this bond seems kind of cute, but before you know it you start feeling like you've taken a trip to some backwoods holler in Appalachia. The first hint that all is not quite right with this idyllic sibling paradise comes when Jack gets Josie to flirt with a pimply teenager who works at a local pharmacy so they can get their hands on some grade A prescription drugs. Jack practically ends up pimping his sister just so he can get high. (Rush Limbaugh would be so proud.) When the boy starts dating Josie in earnest, though, Jack flies off the handle, eventually beating the stuffing out of the poor harmless kid, all in the name of protecting his sister.
Fed up with the railing violence of their father, the pair eventually bail on the physicist, and Jack—ever the charmer—soon manages to convince a stripper in Erie to house both of them for free. When that relationship sours, which it quickly does, the pair makes for New York City. It's in the Big Apple that things really start to get nasty.
The book is narrated entirely by Josie. This is a brilliant choice on Braffet's part due to this character's irresistible combination of high intelligence and complete social cluelessness. Josie has spent her whole life listening to her father and brother tell her that she's better off having nothing to do with the rest of the world, and that she's totally incapable of acting on her own. In other words, she's been carefully programmed to be helpless.
Usually impotent characters are difficult to stomach, but Braffet somehow manages to make Josie extremely sympathetic. This is largely because she makes her teenage star so smart and witty. It's also because—at least early on—Josie wants to believe the best in the people around her, despite all evidence to the contrary. You feel really, really bad for her, yet watching all that youthful naivete get crushed like a can of Spam in a hydraulic press has its own undeniable, ghoulish attractions.
As I mentioned earlier, this novel isn't particularly graphic, but Braffet's evolved sense of narrative pacing keeps the tone sinister from page six all the way to the end. Part of the thrill of the book is watching Jack gradually change from a loving, picture-perfect older brother into a complete monster. You can feel it coming early on, and Braffet takes her time revealing the full horrifying depth of his controlling, primping megalomania, but when it finally arrives in all its sickening glory, it still somehow comes as a complete surprise.
It's just so wrong. So very, very wrong.
Josie and Jack is like a car wreck. You know you really shouldn't stare, but you just can't help yourself. Braffet's breathtaking debut is a page-turner of the most perverse kind. It's well-written, the characters are well-crafted, the story is exceptionally well-plotted, but if you're looking for earnest fiction with grand sociopolitical aspirations, look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you want to devour a novel like a giant Twinkie and maybe feel just a little sick with yourself afterward, Josie and Jack is exactly the book for you.
To top it all off, the ending is sheer evil genius. I hope Braffet isn't a one-shot wonder. If Josie and Jack is any indication, she's got all the fictioneering skills necessary to pump out a string of bestsellers. I'll be watching for her next one and will be the first in line to gobble it up.