Robert Whitlow is known for his John Grisham-like legal thrillers, but in JIMMY he diverges from his normal courtroom dramas to write a heart-tugging tale. The story revolves around a mentally handicapped boy whose discovery of a crime puts his life in danger.
At 13 years old, Jimmy knows he's "special." Writes Whitlow: "He'd been special all his life, and it had created a lot of problems for him, especially at school….However when Mama told Jimmy he was special, the word took on another meaning. Coming from her mouth, the word wrapped around him like a hug." Jimmy also has near-perfect recall for things he hears spoken, which foretells future trouble from the opening pages.
Whitlow shines when he is developing characters, and in JIMMY his talents are in full force. He adeptly explores the loving relationship between a stepmother and her "very special boy," as well as Jimmy's relationship with his father, who he views as rather distant and difficult to please. Readers will also enjoy the relationship between Jimmy and his grandmother and grandfather, retired from the Georgia Power Company and proud owner of a 45-foot climbing pole in his backyard. He's determined that Jimmy will learn to climb it and build his confidence, a situation that foreshadows a tug of war with Jimmy's parents. Jimmy worries about his Grandpa because of his heart attack and needs constant reassurance that his Grandpa's heart will keep beating.
Whitlow knows how to craft a smooth, well-paced story, and in JIMMY he is able to make the simplest things (such as Jimmy's longing for a bike) a subject of absorbing interest for the reader. There's plenty of humor and some of the loose ends of the story remain unresolved by the closing pages, which adds to its authenticity.
It's difficult to strike the right balance of respect for a mentally handicapped adolescent and portraying them realistically, but Whitlow does an admirable job here. Whether Jimmy is helping to manage the football team or interacting with his parents, his interior life is believable and his dialogue is expertly portrayed. (Jimmy tends to ask people whatever is on his mind, something we'd all enjoy doing if we could.) A tension point in the story revolves around Jimmy's birth mother wanting visitation and joint custody. Jimmy's confusion over her and his loyalty to his father and stepmother is believable and poignant.
This is a sweet novel that flirts with sentimentality in places, but doesn't sidestep cruelty and evil. The random acts of kindness, such as when Jimmy is able to buy his first bike, are balanced with the depravity of others (a cousin who takes every opportunity to hurt and malign Jimmy). The endearing character of Jimmy is guaranteed to melt the hardest heart. Whitlow handles the supernatural themes of the novel with a sure hand, letting the angels or "The Watchers" have just the right amount of page space without becoming overly dominant.
The novel's ending will shock many readers and disappoint others. Whitlow has anticipated this reaction and, in an interesting bit of promotion, offers an alternative ending on his website for those who were hoping for a different outcome. Although a sampling of readers on Amazon.com preferred the alternative ending, I found the print conclusion more brutal and realistic. Enough said. No matter which ending you prefer, JIMMY is a good choice for any faith fiction reader who desires a thought-provoking, enjoyable read.
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Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011