LAUGHTER & SORROW: STRANGE BUT INSEPARABLE BEDFELLOWS
by Eric Sarrett
Jeremiah’s Scrapbook begins in the wake of a disastrous labor strike that resulted in murder and then delves into all the misunderstandings and human failings that lead up to this kind of catastrophe. Sarrett’s novel is first and foremost about the way tragedy continues to resonate within the human heart; the way memory is both a gift and an ailment to the one who has loved and lost. Love changes the psyche, by both hardening one’s innocence and also paradoxically, by returning one back to a state of joyful renewed innocence. Anyone who is a fan of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, understands that love and memory are inseparable; love can’t exist without being filtered through the distortions of memory first.
Sarrett is a literary writer but he also knows how to tell a compelling story; he has an inherent understanding of the human dramas that drive the larger, more political ones. Jeremiah, the novel’s emotional center, is an ultra-conservative, retired West Virginia miner who Sarrett tells me is based off his own grandfather (Sarrett grew up in West Virginia). Like all forms of economic exploitation, mining is a complex form of trauma, both to its workers and their family members, and even to the police and reporters involved in the violent consequences of the strike that begins Sarrett’s book.
But like life, tragedy also occurs alongside comedy and comedy inexplicably thrives in states of sadness. The need to laugh when sorrow is at its strongest is one of the most universal human drives. Sarrett has a brilliant sense of how to balance these two extremes—some scenes are hilarious such as the refreshingly gawky and sexually naïve Matthew, an aspiring chef who is also Jeremiah’s grandson, awkwardly rejects the lascivious advances of a very drunk Carol, a reporter covering the strike. Carol is also drawn into romantic relationships with a police officer Christian Pike investigating the strike and with Junior, a married miner, and her indelicate bull-in-a-china-shop personality drives much of the emotional action in the middle of the book.
Watching the pain of community members and friends who are all affected by the recent government shutdown of 2013 and by cuts made on food stamps and unemployment, it might seem difficult to find common ground with ultraconservatives who think like Jeremiah—who believe liberals are babykillers that encourage kids to have sex (Jeremiah yells these views at Carol in a funny early scene at a diner). It’s tragic that Jeremiah fails to see how those whom he supports politically actually augment the suffering that his close friends and family experience. And it’s a comic irony as well: Jeremiah often appears foolish and vulnerable to the reader because of that foolishness, because he can’t see the paradox inherent in his own thinking.
It’s up to the sensitive reader in the end to try and reconcile the contradictions Sarrett raises through his characters. Though Jeremiah’s Scrapbook has the edginess of a psychological thriller, it is ultimately more: a love story, a rendering of the way love and memory unite in the mind to engender sentiment. This fast-paced but always thoughtful novel will give you plenty of time to make up your own meanings. It will continue to ripple through your mind long after you finish the last page.
Margaux Fragoso was born and raised in urban New Jersey. She holds a PhD from Binghamton University. Her poems and fiction have been published in Margie, Barrow Street, The Literary Review, and Big City Lit, among other literary journals. Her essays have appeared in The George Eliot Review and NPR and she has recently written a book review for The New York Times. Her memoir Tiger, Tiger has been named a best book of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, The Washington Post, and Globe and Mail and has been published in twenty-five countries and translated into twenty languages, including Catalan, Romanian, Japanese, French, German, Chinese, Latvian, and Spanish. In September 2013, it made the Prix Medicis longlist and was listed for two other French prizes: The Fnac prize and JDD/France. She currently lives near New Orleans with her family and is working on a novel.