Child abuse is sickening. It is so difficult to believe that any adult would be capable of such a horrendous thing. It is hardest of all, though, to see the world through the victim's eyes. However, Victoria Lustbader forces us to comprehend a child's helplessness and then come to some understanding of what the toll could be with the story of Christopher in her second novel, APPROACHING THE SPEED OF LIGHT. Christopher changes his name to Jody Kowalczyk after he is adopted by one of the officers who rescued him from the violence of his home.
The opening quotation from Hermann Hesse's Wer Lieben Kann Ist Glucklich: Uber Die Liebe says to love suffering, not flee from it. It is the rejection of suffering that hurts, nothing else. Throughout the novel, Jody seems to do just that. As he tries to understand the stupidity and violence that created him, he also grows to accept who he has become.
"APPROACHING THE SPEED OF LIGHT explores the unbelievable ugliness and impotent rage we feel about child abuse, and at the same time, Victoria Lustbader asks us to believe in the profound changes love can bring."
Jody is a numb 17-year-old working in a bakery on Long Island when he sees a flash of gold and red and an aura of sunrise around a woman standing in line. He is in awe and offers her all he has: a doughnut. He overhears her sleek male companion call her Ella, sees her board the ferry back to New York, and feels he has to change. When in fact they meet again in the city through connections that seem quite too coincidental but are in reality what life is about, he tells her, "When I saw you, I knew I had to leave." This chance encounter sets in motion the next 10 years of his life.
The novel moves between the 28-year-old Jody and the child Christopher as told in short stories that Jody writes for Tess, a resident of Parkside Home for Seniors. At their first meeting, when Jody and his crew arrive to replace the mirrors and windows in the residences, Tess believes that Jody is her son, Matt, who died in Vietnam just days after he arrived there. She embraces Jody and looks very hard at him, wanting him to be Matt. She knows he is not, but this connection will change Jody's life. We only get bits and pieces of what he looks like, yet it is not the physical resemblance that draws Tess to him but rather the look, "the fear of what was going to happen to him would come pouring out through his eyes."
Over the 10 years that Jody has lived in the city, he has become transparent in the East Village. He earns enough money to make an upward move, but prefers to stay there because he "likes the pressure of ugliness around me." He believes he belongs with the oddballs and the nuts. His dog Einstein is the only trustworthy part of his life, and he relies on her completely. She is a magnet for picking up girls, but more importantly, she calms him when he awakens from the bad dream.
Throughout the next weeks, when Jody is working at the senior home, he sees Ella once again. She has married and divorced the sleek city man, and her son, Evan, needs a kinder, gentler man in his life. Jody proves to be just that. This part of his maturation is very sweet as he becomes a creative, loving protector for Evan. Ella's impact on Jody is even more believably gentle and satisfying, along with being heartbreaking.
We also meet Jody's adoptive brother, Brendan, and his fiancée, Fern, and see how Jody's unprotected childhood frames his reaction to them. As he writes the stories for Tess, he details the moments when he is abused emotionally by his mother and grandfather and assaulted physically by a live-in lover. These chapters reveal Jody's dependence on adults who mock and mistreat him. As the stories build in intensity and cruelty, Tess reads them, burns them, and asks for more. She could have been his savior.
APPROACHING THE SPEED OF LIGHT explores the unbelievable ugliness and impotent rage we feel about child abuse, and at the same time, Victoria Lustbader asks us to believe in the profound changes love can bring.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on November 29, 2013
Approaching the Speed of Light