A couple months ago, John Green put out a list of book recommendations in one of his vlogs. I’ve tried 3-4 of the books from the list, but haven’t finished any of them. They just didn’t grab my attention. But, I’d had my library order Joshua Braff’s (yes, that family of Braffs) The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green for their collection, so I felt like I should give it the old college try. I read it in its entirety in one sitting. It’s a very fast read. It’s not easy content, but it is fast. Based on the vlog, I was sure this book was a comedy. And parts of it are extremely funny, but other parts are heartbreakingly sad.
The funny is easy. Jacob is a young Jewish boy growing up in the late 70s- early 80s, starting when he’s ten and going until he’s fifteen. He’s at the height of his sexual awakening in an era when all things sexual weren’t available with the press of a few keys. He’s getting his knowledge from his older brother, Asher, the family boarder, Megan, and his school friend, Jonny. We experience a London’s Blitz of slang terms for genitalia. It’s funny. It should be crude, but Braff’s skilled writing turns it into innocent discovery. The bar mitzvah thank you letters, the letters to Megan, and the family rules are a great vehicle to glimpse into Jacob’s thoughts without a lot of exposition or forced dialogue. Entertaining and informative.
Jacob’s relationship is Megan is far from innocent, except that it’s not. For him, it’s an attraction to an older girl. It’s a crush that he’s allowed to act on in seemingly innocent ways. He gives her back massages. They lay together while watching tv and movies. They hang out together. She gives him emotional support. But she’s not a teen. He’s thirteen when this is happening. She’s in a nursing program and at least somewhere in her 20s. Her questionable behaviour starts by going braless during massages and eventually leads to letting him grind against her until he blows his first precious load against her back. We should hate her. Rightfully, we should. If this was the opposite way and older man with a younger girl, we would. It’s such a double standard. I know that. And I have such mixed feelings about her character. She allows these things to happen, even encourages them, but she’s the only one really looking after the emotional needs of this kid. And when she disappears from his life without even a goodbye, she becomes the place he takes out his anger.
This is where the heartbreaking stuff comes in. Jacob’s family is messed up! His mother is clearly embarrassed by her husband. His brother is an artistic hard rocker straying as far from Jewish tradition as possible. The younger two children are too young to know what to do or which side to take when the family starts to disintegrate. But the worst part is Jacob’s father, Abram. The Green patron is a terror. He terrorizes his family with niceness. At first he seems like nothing more than a slightly overbearing father, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s a monster – using his family to overcome his shortcomings.
The terrorizing reaches a peak when Jacob getting so angry he punches a mat so hard he breaks his wrist. His father picks him up to go to the hospital and while his son is sitting in the passenger seat, cradling his broken arm, in pain, and covered in vomit, Abram becomes furious when Jacob isn’t excited about having a movie night. He barely seems to register that his son is hurt. He’s so caught up in his own mania; he can’t see how he’s hurting the people around him. He is the epitome of keeping up with the Jones’ or Bittermans – as the case may be. The movie night comes to a head in the kitchen when Abram loses his shit trying to rip Asher’s pants apart. There are a lot of examples before and after this scene, but for me, this is the moment that was the most painful to read. It’s clear that the Green patron has some type of mental disorder or chemical imbalance that isn’t being treated. I’m not saying mental disorders make people into terrors – I am definitely not saying that. But this is a prime example of what can happen when said disorders/imbalances are not treated (whether through medication or therapy or whatever).
This entire family suffers for years and eventually crumbles under the weight of Abram’s manic swings. Had this story taken place in a different time when his actions may have been recognized, a lot of broken people could have been saved, but it wasn’t. Instead we see how a family that appears perfectly normal on the outside is destroying itself on the inside. It’s a heavy story, but Braff couches it in coming of age humour that allows the reader to get through it without feeling like their drowning in the sorrow. It is absolutely worth reading.