It’s a brand new year, my literary foodies, and the new year serves up new meals from the pantry. Today, we take a bit out of a particularly spicy bit of contemporary fiction, one that promises to delve heavily into themes of racial prejudice, politics, and social dysfunction. Yes, despite what you might think from the cover, sports are only a sideline bit in this meal. So, with the intention to tackle such explosive themes, does J and J treat those themes well while still being a tasty meal?
Before we find out, raise your hand and take the Starving Review pledge:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible
Hoo-boy, this will be a tough one. As has happened before with particularly politically or socially charged books, this one is going to wind up with two ratings, one based purely on the writing and another based on the factual/political content. See, this particular fictional meal incorporates a large amount of real-life, fairly contemporary events and people. As with any historical or contemporary recipe that does so, we have to take into account accuracy and research into the end sum. Enough beating about the bush, let’s get to it!
First, let us look at the pure writing end of things. J and J is an overall well-written piece. The wordsmithing is tight and clean, the plot follows a solid arc, and the major characters are fairly well-developed. Secondary characters tend to be rather cardboard and stereotyped, which is something of a shame in such a socially charged book, leeching away some of the nuances of the situation.I do particularly appreciate one early swerve that is well-written. The only real, glaring flaw on the writing end are the occasional info-dumps that come up, sometimes to dump a character’s backstory and sometimes for a dose of political information. They aren’t deal-breakers but they do lead to some clogs in the pacing of the tale.
Now about those political and social themes … okay, the biggest problem with tackling contemporary issues in any book is laying a foundation of factual information. This sounds easy with the wealth of information that can be found on the Internet and through a variety of media sources but it really isn’t. We have to deal with fake news sources, heavily biased media on all sides of the political spectrum, and search engine algorithms altering results to fit our search histories and confirmation bias. This is made even harder with the difficulties of examining current events in an unbiased fashion … it is simply so close and so recent to look at it through an unvarnished lens.
What does that mean for J and J? Well, without going into SPOILERS, I can say that while elements of the main theme (we need to move on to a post-racial society and all people are indeed equal) are fantastic, the path the chef takes to make those points is terribly flawed. Real-world events are brought up, but the facts presented do not match the real facts of the events. Broad judgments are made without factual information to back them up. Politics and social information provided is shown through the lens of a deeply, deeply conservative political bias. I won’t even touch on some of the awkward racial and social implications that linger in the background. It really feels like a social and political tract written by a very well-meaning person who didn’t do a good enough job in the research department.
This might not even be a problem if this wasn’t so contemporary and trying to offer answers to big problems. If this were a purely entertainment piece, it would be fine. It isn’t, though, and doesn’t pretend to be. That’s where it becomes a problem because readers assume that writers do their research and that if they provide ‘facts’, the reader will assume they are facts, regardless of the actual truth.
Whew, okay, so let’s try to sum this up: Johnny and Jamaal is a well-written, well-meaning, but ultimately factually flawed contemporary politically meal. I find it hard to openly endorse this for anyone. Again, the ultimate message is a good one but the path there is so riddled with misinformation that I can’t really condone it. However, it is still well-written so as long as you walk into it knowing the issues, it may be worth the read for the writing and ultimate message alone.
DUAL SCORE FINAL VERDICT!
WRITING SCORE: **** (Well-written with some pacing missteps!)
SOCIOPOLITICAL SCORE: ** (A good message in the end but factually flawed and heavily biased.)
FINAL AVERAGE SCORE: *** (A well-written, well-meaning, but ultimately factually flawed contemporary politically meal.)