Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Self-Published West Across the Board Makes Me Eat My Words

In a review I wrote yesterday, I very insensitively slammed authors who self-publish. Lest you think I am completely callous, I have to explain that the last few self-published titles I have read have been terrible. After reading Andrew Jalbert's West Across the Board, however, I am happily eating my words. This touching story proves that great books can come from anywhere - even the world of self-publishing.

The story begins in 2000 with 86-year-old Lazaro bumping down the road in the dusty old pickup he hasn't driven in years. Undaunted by his lack of a valid driver's license, Lazaro heads for the Florida Keys, where his old friend Dominic withers away from cancer. Although the men haven't seen each other in 60 years, they have unfinished business - the chess board they have played on since the 1930s, faithfully recording the winner of every game, shows a tie. Lazaro won't let his old friend go without a rematch.

As Lazaro drives, his mind wanders over the "single, nearly complete, linear memory of his life" (6). He remembers losing his mother in Cuba, then migrating to the Keys with his father. As a young man, Lazaro yields to the pull of the sea, cutting through the water on his runabout, fishing for grouper, exploring the reefs, and basking in the Florida sun. After working in the fishing camp one day, Lazaro enters a local saloon to find a stranger sitting at the bar. The man proposes a game of chess. As the men play, Lazaro discovers the stranger's name is Dominic, and he works as an engineer for the Overseas Railroad and Toll Commission. Dominic's warm, friendly manner draws Lazaro to him, and the men quickly become friends. Despite marriage, divorce, tragedy and sorrows, the two continue to play, always finding common ground over the board.

It is on Labor Day 1935 that things start to change. On that day, a deadly hurricane hits the Keys (the hurricane actually occurred, although it claimed no victims in the Keys) and Lazaro's life is forever altered. Plagued by guilt, he flees the tropics and makes a life for himself in Chicago. Although Dominic writes often, begging Lazaro to return to the Keys and their chess games, Lazaro stuffs his past onto the cellar shelf and tries to forget his former life. It is only when Lazaro receives a call from Dominic's nurse begging him to visit before Dominic dies, that Lazaro returns to the Keys. The chessboard comes out of the cellar and makes the trip as well.

As Lazaro reconnects with his old friend, he realizes not only how much he's missed Dominic, but also how much their friendship has shaped his life. As the old men reminisce, Lazaro realizes he must come to terms with his past in order to grant his dying friend's final wish. Can he face the pain of the past? And what will it mean for his future? Will the chessboard that started it all lead to a reconciliation? Or will the final game remain unplayed?

I loved this sweet story about two elderly men reconnecting over a chessboard. It's a simple, touching tale set against a vibrant Florida background. Andrew Jalbert paints his setting with authority, clearly building on his own experience as a mariner, fisherman and explorer to create an intriguing backdrop for his story. Still, it's the relationship between the characters that makes the novel. The beauty of their friendship makes the story a warm, engaging read. Even as the novel draws to its inevitable conclusion, the tale resists sappy platitudes and celebrates lives well lived.

West Across the Board won't win a Pulitzer for the brilliance of its writing, but it's one of those books that makes you remember why you read. It's simply a lovely book that reminds you of what's really important - goodness, friendship and the "games" that make life worth living.

Grade: B


8 comments:

  1. Great summary of this story. I keep hearing great things about the heart of these two characters and the cinematic way you described it makes me want to read this even more.

    Bravo, Andrew!

    Karen Harrington

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like the sounds of this one. I don't come across all that many books in which men are dealing with their feelings and emotions like you describe here. It's usually women. I also like the setting -- I'm so ready for a vacation!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Andrew Jalbert22 May, 2008 09:32

    Thanks Karen!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Andrew Jalbert22 May, 2008 09:36

    Thanks Lisa! I've heard a lot of similar comments about men writing about emotions. I don't think I started the book with that goal, but I used a number of personal experiences to shape the story and in the end the emotional aspects of each kind of made their way to the surface. If you get the chance to read the book, please visit my site and drop me a line. I'd love to hear what you thought...and get working on taking that vacation! Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Andrew Jalbert22 May, 2008 09:50

    Good morning Susan!

    Just wanted to drop you a line thanking you for your review. You were described as "tough but good"...a perfect combination. I think you were right to feel the way you do about many of the self-published & POD books. Most of us ended up going that route as a last resort (let's be honest about this right?) But PODs (for me at least) have been a great stepping stone. If you're willing to take the time, learn about writing (it's a lot of hard work and requires a lot of practice) and check a bit (or a whole heap) of ego at the door,PODs can be a great vehicle and a useful stepping stone. Along the way, I've met some great editors, learned more about the process and (at least I hope) have become a better writer. Thanks again for reviewing so many books and the great site!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for your comments, Karen and Lisa. I really enjoyed this story, especially since it's about emotions/feelings, but not sappy. It's just a nice, sweet story.

    Andrew - Thanks so much for stopping by! I'm glad you proved me wrong about PODs. Obviously, there's a lot of undiscovered talent out there. It does blow my mind sometimes when the big publishers back crappy books, while rejecting some really good ones. I guess it all boils down to money, but still...

    I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed your website. Your photos are stunning.

    ReplyDelete
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