Book Review: Jane Goes North
By Chris Chan
Jane Goes North, by Joe R. Lansdale, is a comic, picaresque novel where the title character goes on a road trip to her estranged sister’s wedding. As is often the case, the story is more about the journey than the destination, but it’s not a journey of self-discovery. Over the course of the narrative, it’s revealed that the title character’s life is a mess, but is the disarray of her existence her own fault, just bad luck, or a combination of the two? Perhaps Jane just attracts trouble, consciously or unconsciously. Whatever the case, she seems content with her lot in life, and while a more judgmental analysis (or more charitably, a more honest assessment) of her life would suggest that she needs to reassess her choices and make better life decisions, Jane’s look back at her life and her misadventures over the course of her road trip suggest that she’s unwilling or incapable of change.
The strongest part of the book is Lansdale’s tone, which manages to be wry, laid-back, and perceptive in ways that the characters itself are not. The friendship between Jane and her compatriot Henry is also well-crafted. The problem with the story is that while the journey has a physical destination, the characters don’t really go on a personal, emotional, or spiritual journey, even though their trip provides them with plenty of opportunities for epiphanies and self-analysis. Seinfeld famously imposed a “no hugging, no learning” mantra on its writers, but while Seinfeld produced comedy gold, applying “no hugging, no learning” to Jane Goes North produces an otherwise entertaining work where the heart of the book winds up in the wrong place.
Ultimately, Jane’s “I’m fine the way I am” attitude leaves her with not so much a character arc as a character point, or at best a character segment. The only reason this book qualifies as a crime story is because along the way, Jane and her friends fall under the power of a gang of human traffickers. It’s a dark plot twist that isn’t quite given the gravity it deserves, but without spoilers, the fact that Jane escapes a terrible fate more by luck and chance than by bravery, determination, and cleverness, means that she’s almost entirely a passive character, who rarely takes responsibility for her mistakes and seems to be completely incapable of introspection. It’s fine that she’s an antiheroine, but she needed to be more than just a prickly blob of dough.
One rather unpleasant aspect of the book is the anti-religious streak that runs throughout the narrative. The preachers mentioned in the novel are all either libidinous rakes or shifty con men, perhaps both. Sucker punches against religion in general, some of which verge on open bigotry and nasty stereotypes, are sprinkled throughout the book. This attitude negatively affects the tone of the story, for ninety-five percent of the story is told with a twinkle in the eye, whereas the anti-religious jibes abruptly shift to a supercilious sneer. When Jane muses that she thinks that “religion seemed to bring out the worst in folks,” it’s a false lesson that doesn’t fit the narrative. After a dispassionate look at the plot and character backstories, one can draw a far more justifiable conclusion from the book that trying to have sex without consequences or cutting yourself off emotionally from others in pursuit of your own pleasure and desires is what really brings out the worst in people.
Yet for all of Jane Goes North’s shortcomings, I finished the book convinced that Lansdale was a very talented writer with a keen awareness of the human condition, and an earthy and sly sense of humor. His work just needs sharper character development, and a protagonist who possesses the desire for self-improvement and recognizes the need for treating others more humanely.
Jane Goes North
By Joe R. Lansdale