Jack: Grime and Punishment

Jack: Grime and Punishment

Z.A. Maxfield

Painful pasts seem to be the staple of romance literature. Mopping up the pain and putting protagonists on a newer, happier track make up the plotlines of a long line of memorable books. This change of path from Maxfield’s St. Nacho’s series and a slew of stand-alones marks the first of the Brothers Grime series.

Former Orange County, California firefighter Jack Masterson feels a little like he’s under siege even though he’s recovered from his physical wounds after a debilitating on-the-job fall and has founded a company that cleans up crime scenes. While he isn’t perfectly happy with his life, he’ll live. Jack would like his police detective lover Dave Huntley to come out as a gay man and publicly acknowledge their affair, but Jack is pragmatic enough to understand that Dave isn’t ready for such a big step.

When Jack learns his high school lover, another closeted gay guy named Nick, has committed suicide, Jack goes to the scene of the crime in order to ask the next of kin if he (Jack) can clean up the bloody bathroom. Jack thinks he needs this for closure since Nick not only repelled him publicly in high school, but gathered a gang of friends to beat Jack nearly to death. Jack thinks cleaning the scene will rid him of his lingering anger and resentment.

But when he meets Nick’s gay cousin Ryan, who is a dead ringer for Nick, Jack is understandably upset. Ryan agrees to let Jack clean up the mess, but only if he too can participate. Even though Jack argues against Ryan’s assistance, Ryan assures him that as a hospital nurse, he’s seen even worse messes and has cleaned them up. Besides, Ryan too says he needs closure after Nick’s death.

So begins a relationship not quite made in heaven. In fact, the memories of the high school incident as seen from senior Jack’s and freshman Ryan’s viewpoints differ quite a bit. Many of the memories are tainted by their families’ status in the community—Ryan and Nick’s upperclass underpinnings and Jack’s more humble roots.

Since the story is told primarily from Jack’s viewpoint which is seemingly straightforward and reliable, readers will tend to accept that as reality. We sympathize with Jack who’s been through two catastrophic physical events and worked his way back from both of them. We want him to be the good guy even though Maxfield sends up flags that Jack is severely flawed.

Ryan, on the other hand, is harder to like and sypathize with. As a reader I had problems understanding how he could be on Nick’s side since I’d accepted Jack’s version of previous events. As we learn more about Ryan’s place in his family, a family that disowned him when he came out to them, Ryan becomes more complex. All Ryan wants, just like Jack, is to be accepted and loved. It’s particularly heart-renching that Ryan is cousin to the closeted, self-hating Nick.

Poor, unhappy Nick, as a ghost, is the character hardest to come to terms with. I wanted to hate him since he and his friends attacked Jack. But since he committed suicide – which said to me that he was deeply tortured – I couldn’t hate him, but pity him.

The clincher for me is how Maxfield made me understand and like these flawed men. Ultimately there isn’t a good guy in this story, only two people who are struggling to live one day to the next knowing they may have let down someone they once loved.

As usual, Maxfield gives readers the excellent writing, intricate plotting, and believable characters we’ve come to expect. With each book, her novels just get better and better.