Jenny Shank is a god. I say this largely because I agree with a sentiment she expresses in the late innings of her debut novel, The Ringer: an understanding of the “hidden connections between everyone” is “knowledge only a god should bear.” Despite this warning, however, Shank attempts throughout her novel to mirror the kind of knowledge that might otherwise be restricted to the divine. What’s especially amazing is that the author succeeds wildly in her attempt, and in so doing, she demonstrates the unique power of the novel to make gods of us all by illuminating the connections our habitual minds tend to miss.
The Ringer is told from the perspectives of two characters: Ed O’Fallon and Patricia Maestas. Their fates become intertwined when Ed, a police officer, kills Patricia’s husband in a botched drug raid. From Ed’s perspective, the shooting was a terrible mistake that places him in the center of a political firestorm, puts his job in jeopardy, and plunges him into a deep depression. For Patricia, the killing means that she’ll not only have to raise her children on her own, but also that she has no choice but to assume the role of a figurehead in a racially charged battle with city hall. To complicate matters, Ed and Patricia both have sons who play in the same baseball league, and when their paths inevitably cross, each can’t help but eye the other with suspicion and dread.
The true miracle of Shank’s novel is that she manages to tell her story from two distinct and very different points of view without ever favoring (or disfavoring) either. Instead, Shank encourages us to sympathize equally with both protagonists and, in so doing, effectively gives us two perfectly interwoven novels of heartache, uncertainty, and a modicum of triumph. Indeed, the exquisite agony of reading the novel is knowing the truth — that both parties are hurting, that both parties are under immense pressure from all sides not to be the first to blink, and that, in a better world, both parties would confront each other directly rather than losing themselves in the machinations of forces beyond their control. This, after all, is the great irony of the human condition in postmodern times: despite all of the means we have of communicating with each other, something always gets in the way. We are, Shank suggests throughout the novel, social animals bereft of true society, yet we do our best to make the kinds of connections — human and personal, if tentative and limited — that make our lives worth living.
An astounding debut.
-Review by Marc Schuster