Everybody has a few books which make a deep and lasting impression on them. Books which they read at just the right time, in just the right mood to ensure a well-worn copy remains on the nearest shelf for decades to come. Books which will inevitably worm their way into every single conversation about literature, no matter how tenuous the connection. For me there are three: Catch-22, my first ever 'serious' book and catalyst for my ever-strengthening pacifist views; Bad Wisdom for it's utterly compelling honesty and insanity; and Stone Junction: An Alchemical Potboiler, an indescribable wonder whose lack of general recognition both saddens me and makes me happy to belong to 'the club'. It is a masterpiece of magical realism, verging at times on urban fantasy and exhilarates as much as it breaks your heart. That it is one of only four volumes published by Jim Dodge (among them a collection of poems and a short children's book) makes it all the more precious.
Stone Junction is the story of Daniel Pearse, a young man emerging from a strange and wondrous childhood. Daniel finds himself adopted by the mysterious AMO, the Association of Magicians and Outlaws, an organisation his mother served throughout his early years. What follows is a coming-of-age story as Daniel finds himself passed from mentor to mentor through the ranks of the AMO, learning every imaginable trick of the trade along the way. From alchemy to card-sharking, he leaves no stone unturned in his quest for knowledge. Daniel is not just after an unorthodox education however; powering every step is his desire to finally discover what really happened on a pivotal night years before.
Throughout the course of his schooling Daniel is deposited with a number of unforgettable father-figures, some more than willing to take on a temporary apprentice, others less so. Here Dodge plays with the idea of Daniel's lack of a real father-figure, having never actually known his own. No matter how the mentors feel about their new charge, their vignettes are invariably as entertaining as they are inspiring and informative. Dodge draws on his own experience of inhabiting all manner of insalubrious worlds to paint each scene with enviable authenticity and warmth, suggesting an uncanny familiarity with everything from safe-cracking to drug ingestion. Even an extended game of Lo-Ball during the cards section is magically imbued with a level of interest and tension which should, given the subject matter, be impossible. When I first read this book back in university I even found myself hovering around the card games shelves in Waterstone's, pondering the feasibility of a career in Vegas (thankfully I had a combination of common sense and sloth to save me).
During the course of his training, Daniel begins to uncover his own hidden talents as well as honing those he has learnt and soon rises through the ranks of the AMO. Before long he is involved in the search for the Faith Diamond, a jewel of incredible size and purity which captures the imagination of all those who cross its path. Daniel is drawn to it instinctively and as time wears on it becomes more and more clear that the hunt for the diamond holds the answer to the fate of his long-lost mother and that which may await him as well.
Jim Dodge’s great strength is the warmth and authenticity which he manages to bestow on such a fantastical epic. You know you’re immersed in a world where magic is real, alchemy works and ornery old mules can speak but your disbelief remains suspended throughout. This is largely due to the strength of the characters themselves. Despite their otherworldly talents they remain the most down-to-earth, utterly real people you could hope to meet. You’ll find echoes of them in your own family and acquaintances and will even miss them once the story moves on and leaves them in the dust. Add to this cast an incredibly original, compelling and addictive story and you’ll wonder why this isn't paraded in bookstores everywhere as a paragon of modern literature.
Stone Junction is many things to many people. On the surface it’s an ensemble piece, focused on an unforgettable cast of characters who will carve out their own niche in your psyche and lurk there for quite some time afterwards, chattering and taunting. It’s a coming of age story revolving around a boy becoming a man and facing the demons of his past. It’s a tale of love, loss and redemption, of friendship and betrayal. It’s a touching homage to the author’s own youth, an autobiography viewed through the lens of an untamed imagination.
However you see Stone Junction, one thing is certain: it will not leave you unchanged. Take a deep breath, submerge yourself in it and let its wonders wash over you. You’ll not regret it.
This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Both he and Splendibird read this book the same week, many years ago, and both urge you to pick up a copy NOW. Stone Junction is available in all good bookstores.