The Abundant Life
- By Aaron Jacobs
- Run Amok Books
- 338 pp.
- Reviewed by Martha Anne Toll
- August 3, 2019
A funny, madcap story that somehow doesn’t defy reality.
Say it’s 2018. You crack open a debut novel about a convicted felon who returns home to a bankrupt family, saves himself and them through an unholy alliance with an Evangelical church, and becomes the subject of a sociological study and screenplay.
If you imagined a book that explores systemic, centuries-old racial violence, or the prison-industrial complex, or the impossibility of rehabilitation due to insurmountable barriers that greet returning prisoners, you would be wrong.
If, on the other hand, you imagined you were about to plunge into a book about Trump’s America and take a tour of the opioid epidemic and the havoc it’s wreaked on America’s heartland, you would still be wrong.
The hero (or anti-hero) of Aaron Jacobs’ The Abundant Life is Alex Wolf, a Jewish boy who goes rogue as a teenage gunrunner, does hard time, and returns home to — not much. Meet his struggling family: Mom’s a bleeding heart working in a homeless shelter; Dad’s a gambler and a business failure; and little sister Rachel’s greatest aspiration is to leave home for college.
Where to find money? The credit-card debt is too deep to see the bottom, and the house, of course, is a health hazard.
In addition to the Wolf family, there’s Laura Sullivan, Ph.D., whose study, “White Boy Bandito: How a Clever Suburbanite Became Death’s Middleman for South American Revolutionaries,” threads through the narrative like pumped-up, if not fake, news. She gives one perspective on Alex’s time behind bars, while Alex shares another.
Through his letters from prison, delivered in flashbacks that are both disruptive and amusing, Alex backfills his time in the slammer. And despite his snarky narration, we come to see him acknowledge his debt of gratitude to his family. He expresses empathy for his father, who has a dark side:
“It was his normal sounding routine that put me on edge. It was when things were going well enough for them to unravel that I was forced to keep an eye out for signs of gambling and watched as he reverted into the damaged guy even though revert didn’t capture what would happen. He wouldn’t change back and forth. He was always both those guys, the way I was both the jailbird and the son making amends…”
To make those amends, Alex crafts a scheme to walk his family back from the abyss: a business selling Crown of Thorns plants allegedly from the Holy Land. Enter Reverend Warren Holden, whose ministry is built on cons such as these. Holden knows a business opportunity when he sees one. Alex’s family embraces the idea, and the fun begins:
“At home, my family took the news of our merger with the Holden Ministry with that unique Wolf-ness of ours — a mulligan stew of flummoxation and reticence and gratefulness and excitement.”
Author Jacobs needs to prune his clichés and deploy fewer ordinary turns of phrase. His writing can be choppy and convoluted. What he does deliver, however, is humor. Alex’s cynicism is unrelenting, but fortunately, he can laugh at himself. If we cotton to Alex, it is for his self-deprecation, written in language that cannot be printed in a family newspaper. His so-called sexual exploits are somewhere between painful and hilarious. But hiding beneath his screw-ups, both literal and figurative, is a person who cares.
Character development? Not really. Big ideas? Nah. Call this book madcap, call it screwball, and you would be right. Read The Abundant Life for entertainment and for a plot that defies reality; that is, if we weren’t living in 2018.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
Martha Anne Toll’s essays appear regularly on NPR’s website and in the Millions, as well as in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, the Nervous Breakdown, Heck Magazine, and the Independent. Her fiction has appeared in Catapult, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Yale's Letters Journal, Inkapture Magazine, Poetica E Magazine, and Referential Magazine. Martha directs a social-justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness and on criminal-justice reform. Please visit her at www.marthaannetoll.com and tweet to her at @marthaannetoll.