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The Coward 

Jarred McGinnis

Canongate, 2021

Review by Suzanne Harrington

The opening Q&A sets the tone for the debut novel of Jarred McGinnis: ‘What’s worse than being in a wheelchair? Being a fuck-up in a wheelchair.’ The narrator of The Coward, also called Jarred McGinnis, finds himself trapped with all his rage, pain, hate, hurt, rebellion, self-destruction and overnight paraplegia (‘the golden ticket to great parking and people’s condescension’) inside ‘a giant rollerskate’ after a car accident. The Coward is his escape story, not from his situation, but from the headspace that led him there.

Fictional Jarred, like his real-life creator, comes from Austin, Texas. Also like his real-life creator, fictional Jarred has been a wheelchair user since he was twenty-six. And fictional Jarred, again like his real-life creator, falls in love with a woman called Sarah. This is not a memoir, says real-life Jarred, nor auto-fiction. Perhaps it’s a device like the ‘Brett Easton Ellis’ character in Brett Easton Ellis’s novel Lunar Park. Or perhaps fiction offers Jarred / ‘Jarred’ more scope. At the book’s beginning, above an old photo of a baby sitting alone in a nappy and party hat, he writes ‘The distance between fiction and memoir is measured in self-delusions.’ Once you start reading, however, you forget about getting snagged on what’s-real-and-what-isn’t, as the story of Jarred McGinnis takes over. And what a story it is.

Here’s when we first meet him: ‘When I woke up in the hospital, they told me my girlfriend had been killed. She wasn’t my girlfriend, but I didn’t correct them.’ Free of the chronological plod of memoir, the narrative smoothly loops between present and past, linking the raging boy Jarred with the raging man Jarred. He has much to rage about, from the loss of his mother, and the subsequent violence of his father, to the loss of his legs. He does not identify as disabled: ‘All your understanding of living involves two working legs….The disabled are …. a vessel into which you pour all your pity or curiosity.’

Growing up, Jarred’s parents are in love with each other and with alcohol: ‘They drank and they loved. I just happened to be there’. Their sofa drinking happens in a house ‘where every glass stayed full’ as ‘tinselled tv shows happy-ended.’ When Jarred is ten, an aneurysm kills his mother, and his father falls apart. So does their relationship. Everything falls apart. An older brother, Patrick, moves out, leaving Jarred in the care of his alcoholic father, whom he stops calling Dad and renames Jack. Violence and chaos ensue. Jarred runs away for good when he is sixteen, in a car stolen from the neighbours.

The story, slipping between now and then, sees Jarred calling Jack from the hospital ten years later. His father is the last resort, as he navigates his new status: ‘In my old room in my old mirror, the cripple from the hospital had followed me.’

Rage, and Jarred’s refusal to be dismissed as disabled, drive the story; biting humour, gallows-high, is what keeps it all from sliding into a swamp of self pity. ‘I’m so sorry you’re in a wheelchair,’ someone says, to which he snaps back, ‘I’m sorry you’re a drunk and smell of piss.’ He is refreshingly obnoxious. When someone else says that everything happens for a reason, Jarred punches the guy under his chin from the wheelchair, asking if that was meant to happen too. He writes on a t-shirt, ‘Not interested in Jesus or telling you why I am in a wheelchair’ and ‘I am not your good deed for the day’, then asks Jack which he prefers. ‘The second one,’ Jack says. ‘It’s punchier.’

Jack, sober and in AA, is finally the dad Jarred desperately needs, his humour cutting like lemon through any potential sentimentality: ‘Think of the money you’re going to save on shoes alone.’ His fatherly dating advice begins with, ‘Listen, rubber legs.’

Flashbacks reveal a different Jack, during Jarred’s broken, neglected adolescence where he ran a ‘bespoke shoplifting service’, self-harmed, and ended up on a psychiatric ward aged fifteen with ‘Bulimic Carol, Alcoholic Tracey, Bipolar Me’. Drifting for a decade, he hopped trains across the country, like Jack Kerouac but without the romance. All the anger, humour and pain is wrapped in glittering language. Vicodin are ‘a palmful of teeth’. A cigarette sends ‘sea horses of smoke tumbling.’ He sits in coffee shops ‘fly fishing for eye contact.’ An apartment block is ‘tangled up in pine trees like a broken kite.’

Jarred’s relationship with his father is the hinge on which everything pivots. His father’s persistent, patient love, as well as the empathy of Sarah in the coffee shop, are what help Jarred – like a broken hedgehog, curled in a tight and spikey ball – to unfurl. A quick look online reveals how real-life Jarred is doing today. Spoiler alert: it’s a happy ending.