Thursday, April 26, 2012

William Landay Is Defending Jacob

It is difficult to imagine anything more disturbing than the murder of a 14-year-old boy. And this is the consensus of the residents of a quiet suburban community in Middlesex County, Mass. Nothing would ever be the same again. Some events are too haunting to let go, ever.

Ben Rifkin's body was found in the park, lying face down on an embankment just off one of several paths that many students use to travel to and from school every day. He was stabbed three times. The wounds were purposeful, awkwardly angled so the serrated blade could slip between the ribs.

When someone finally found the body, the nearby school was immediately placed on lockdown. The students were ordered back to their home rooms, doors locked. The teachers held them there for hours until the all clear was finally given.

In the days that followed, the school grounds became a carnival. Every parent would elect to drop their children off at school. News crews would set themselves up in the parking lot, looking for reactions. Police officers would be stationed at the entrance and along the grounds. Parents would loiter outside, uncertain how long it would take to feel safe leaving any of them while a murderer was in their midst.

Defending Jacob is a courtroom and crime thriller by an untrusted source. 

On any other day, Andy Barber would be the most reliable source for any story. He is respected in his community. He has been the assistant district attorney for 22 years; first assistant for many of them. He was also among the first to know about the Rifkin murder and expediently assigned himself the case.

But today, at the open of Landay's novel, Barber is hard to trust as he answers questions from the witness stand. Never mind that the grand jury proceeding itself, roughly one year after the murder, isn't about the murder. It becomes clear enough quick enough that it's all related.

Barber can't be trusted for two reasons. As a former prosecuting attorney, he takes some delight in being able to dismantle and rebuff the questions being asked by a former de facto protégé, the man who has since taken his position as first assistant district attorney. And second, as we will quickly learn in the retelling of events, his 14-year-old son Jacob Barber is the prime suspect one year prior.

The dismantling of a respected family as told across three interlinked timelines. 

While most people are quick to classify Defending Jacob as a courtroom thriller, the novel by Landay works harder than that. The story is told in different timelines — the events immediately following the murder trial, the trial, and the grand jury proceeding. Meticulously crafted together, this alone could create a convincing case that Defending Jacob would become a classic thriller.

Landay delivers much more. By conveying the entire story through Barber, he presents three layers of perspective — what happened, based on evidence; what the protagonist perceives to have happened; and what the protagonist refuses to believe happened. And in that telling, Barber becomes as fallible as he is likable as an unthinkable tragedy befalls his family.

For Barber, his son's innocence doesn't merit speculation. He doesn't think his son is innocent. He knows it. But regardless of his convictions, the presumption of innocence is a luxury that is only afforded to those inside the courtroom. Outside of the courtroom, the Barbers are dealt one blow after another as Andy Barber is taken off the case, his son is suspended from school, and his wife Lori fixates on her husband's dark family secret.

While she was never meant to know, Barber has no choice but to tell her. He comes from a long line of dangerous men, something that he himself had largely buried to protect himself from being judged. Barber's father didn't simply abandon him at age 5. He was sentenced to life in prison for murder.

The connection, compounded on the accusation and arrest, is too much for Lori to bear. She begins to crack, fray at the seams, and add up all those moments some mothers have a hard time explaining away.

Was Jacob a difficult or violent child when he was growing up? Was there more to all those injuries his friends and classmates endured while he was around them? Isn't a certain degree of narcissism a condition of being a teenager? Is it possible that the boy in the next room inherited a murder gene?

A few expedited graphs about author William Landay.

William Landay isn't a fan of encapsulating author biographies and blurbs, whether for the purposes of adorning dust jackets or even reader reviews (I imagine). He makes his case as effortlessly as as he wrote this novel. Effortlessly, of course, is the wrong word. The appearance of effortlessness in writing is the most surest sign that it was anything but effortless.

The blurbs, he considers, can mislead the reader and influence the experience, especially when they include credentials like his: a graduate of Yale University and Boston College Law School who worked as a district attorney before becoming an author. Inevitably, however, readers like to look behind the veil of any great story to see who or what is behind it even if all stories ought to stand on their own. And we think his take on all this says more than any blurb might.

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay Cuts 9.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

I'm not one to dive into any book described as a courtroom crime thriller. There is much more to be found here because Landay fully realizes Andy Barber and his perception of the people around him. While infusion of Barber is so complete some readers will say some parts are better than others, those feelings probably have more to do with how we feel about Barber than the story. The book is near perfect from start to finish, impossible to predict, and difficult to put down once it gets going.

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay is available from Amazon. The book can also be found at Barnes & Noble. You can download it from iBooks or listen to the audiobook from iTunes. With Grover Gardner's stunning narration, the audio only enhances the experience all the more, especially in sections that spin out passages of courtroom dialogue. For better and worse, Gardner becomes Barber.
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