Jacob’s Ladder – Louis Flint Ceci (Les Croyens/Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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Les Croyens/Beautiful Dreamer

Ceci’s third installment in a 1960s small town high school drama centers on an ascendant boys’ basketball team and the community’s private struggles. Deft and subtle handling of the economic and racial tensions of the time grounds the story and provides a realistic and compelling atmosphere.

It’s reminiscent of a soap opera, not to suggest melodrama, but Ceci employs a huge cast of characters and quick, alternating viewpoint scenes to build his narrative. The story opens with the lead character, sixteen-year-old Malachi “Jake” Jacob, stumbling upon the Stonewall riots while visiting New York City, which draws his curiosity as a budding gay teen. When violence increases on the streets, Jake takes refuge in an apartment building lobby and meets a young, more sexually liberated man, Vince. Romantic sparks ignite.

But Jake’s journey to figure out how to live as gay is just one of several themes. The narrative jumps back and forth between many people who make up fictional Croy, Oklahoma. The result is a well-realized American “everytown,” a character in and of itself, though readers will likely want to start with the first book in the series, which I didn’t have the advantage of doing. In some instances, it’s hard to follow the characters’ motivations, lacking a full grasp of their personal histories and their histories with each other.

Jake is welcomed home from his summer in New York City by his best friend Joanie, who is dedicated to managing the high school newspaper and in an on-the-rocks relationship with Jake’s friend Randy. Randy then enters the story as a young man who keeps a lot beneath the surface. His storyline is one of those instances where it would help to have read the earlier books. Randy’s father is a fugitive from a crime that’s not explained and meanwhile Randy comes into a sizeable inheritance through circumstances that sound significant to the town’s history though the details must’ve come up earlier in the series. There’s tension between Jake and Randy regarding Jake’s gayness, and the boys’ relationship is depicted with intriguing complexity. Does Randy’s anger toward Jake stem from homophobia or is he jealous of Jake’s boyfriend and/or Jake’s easy friendship with Joanie?

Interwoven with that love triangle of sorts, the three leads characters’ family members are introduced and present new dramas. Jake’s mother Susan is a hometown hero, having made it as a TV soap opera actress. She’s also a patron of the town’s conservative, Christian restorationist church and largely an absent parent. Jake’s father was a reverend of some notoriety in town, and Joanie’s family, the Tibbits, who have taken on informal guardianship of Jake, are devout Catholics. The religious affiliations of Croy’s inhabitants are an important layer to the community, which like many small towns is a patchwork of Christian denominations that influence social transactions and personal biases.

The big news that school year is Croy High School will be hosting students from a largely Black high school, which lost its roof in a storm. One consequence is that Black students will be joining Croy’s basketball team, and that presents a challenge to Jake, his teammates, and their families. Ceci depicts the circumstances with just enough attention to spoken and unspoken tensions to make the reader think about the realities of racial integration in the 1960s. One admires the author’s restraint and effective storytelling.

Supporting characters provide some of the story’s most engaging moments. The basketball team rallies around their co-captain Al Mattingly, who becomes gravely ill mid-season. A young diabetic girl, Bobbie, struggles to understand the world as she begins to step out from her family’s Christian fundamentalist home. A bookish young man, Beau, suffers ridicule and violence from his peers for being soft and presumably queer. A basketball coach and a male teacher try to maintain a secret affair within a community that would condemn them. In contrast, the basketball court scenes that take up much of the latter half of the book lack a bit of universal appeal, but there’s a lot to enjoy about Ceci’s Croy. A great book for readers with a sense of nostalgia about the late 1960s as well as those who enjoy well-crafted period dramas.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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