Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.

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YA fiction

Rene S. Perez II

Seeing Off the Johns

Cinco Puntos Press

Paperback, 978-1-941026-12-0 (also available in hardcover and as an e-book), 256 pgs., $11.95

November 3, 2015

Tiny, fictional Greenton, set in South Texas, “a one-stoplight town built on cattle and railroads and killed by bypasses and super-ranches,” doesn’t have much going for it. What Greenton does have are “two crown princes,” John Robison and John Mejias, high school baseball stars signed to play college ball for the University of Texas at Austin. The Johns graduated from high school twenty-four hours ago and now they’re dead, killed in a rollover accident on their way to Austin, shortly after a ceremonious departure complete with police escort to the city limits and banners strung across Main Street. Greenton is stunned, especially beautiful Araceli Monsevais, “Goddess of Greenton,” long-time girlfriend of Mejia. Concepcion “Chon” Gonzales has been in love with Araceli for as long as he can remember. Will the town let Araceli move on?

Seeing Off the Johns, a tough and touching coming of age novel by Rene S. Perez II, is an intuitive and rather sophisticated exploration of grief and loss and coping mechanisms, both individually and collectively, told in the language of small-town teenagers, through the lens of Araceli and Chon. We follow the progress, and lack thereof, made by Chon and Araceli and the entire town of Greenton over the next school year as they all attempt to assimilate the worst tragedy the town has ever experienced.

The parents of both Johns regret condoning “the hero-worship of two young men who were not yet done being boys.” The baseball coach fears that “the rest of his career would be defined in contrast to the four years he had with the Johns.” Teenagers sneak into the cemetery for a “late night fix of what-might-have-been.” Araceli struggles with survivor’s guilt and Chon worries that approaching Araceli in the aftermath of this tragedy makes him a “predator … an opportunist.”

Perez is multitalented. He writes funny when “Henry couldn’t write a paragraph or even conjugate most irregular verbs in Spanish but in decrying a puto, he was Neruda.” He writes teenage angst when Chon longs for “the doom-jazz mood of a rainy night”. And he can turn a phrase, riffing on Greenton’s high school, “a WPA-era building erected to look like a fallout shelter and a factory for the crop-cut future GIs who would come up in the last pure, pre-rock ’n’ roll of American youth.”

Seeing Off the Johns is briskly and evenly paced. The deceptively simple plot allows the young people to take center stage and everyone who grew up in a small Texas town will recognize these personalities. They are allowed to stretch, to contract, and to mature, and it’s a pleasure to be along for the ride as Chon finds out how brave his heart really is.

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