Jarred McGinnis’s debut novel draws on his own experience of living with a disability, and his protagonist shares his name. “The distance between fiction and memoir is measured in self-delusion,” McGinnis writes, gnomically, at the start.
However close or not to the author’s life, the fictionalised Jarred certainly has no shortage of material: when he’s left unable to walk following a car crash at 26, it’s the latest trauma in a life full of them. Jarred’s mother died when he was 10, causing his father’s alcoholism to spiral and Jarred to turn into a self-destructive teenage runaway. When he rings his father, Jack, to ask him to collect him from hospital in Austin, Texas, it’s the first time they’ve spoken in a decade.
The Coward moves between a present-day narrative of father and son trying to repair their relationship and a gradual, if rather heavily foreshadowed, revealing of all Jarred has been through. The author, himself a wheelchair-user, writes with pitch-black humour about the disabled experience, offering an utterly unsentimentalised perspective. Jarred can be self-pitying, but he scorchingly refuses anyone else’s pity; he makes a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “I am not your good deed for the day”.
Happily, Jack matches him in wise-cracking and piss-taking, and their cynical repartee gives The Coward real energy. But this is a book of two tones, and when things get serious, the story gets bogged down in melodramatic pronouncements and accusations (“you think you’re the only one with shame and guilt?”, and so on).
McGinnis writes about physical pain with much more distinctive vividness, however, and his reflections on addiction cut through. A scene where the teenage Jarred goes to his father’s AA meeting and resists “the selfishness of recovery” is particularly potent. And if the eventual redemption never really seems in doubt, the reader is still sure to feel invested in Jarred, and Jack, finding it.