Set in Mercer, Wisconsin, where tensions over Native American fishing rights are escalating, JERKWATER is told from three alternating points-of-view:
Shawna Reynolds, a young Ojibwa woman who doesn’t much care for white people to begin with, and who is quickly being pulled in a direction she may no longer have a desire to resist;
Kay O’Brien, Shawna’s 64-year-old, usually drunk, neighbor who is still grieving the loss of her husband;
And Kay’s son, Douglas, who now finds himself in charge of running the family’s auto repair shop while dealing with his own feelings of guilt.
JERKWATER is a story about the racial tensions churning just beneath the surface of what often appears to be placid, everyday American life.
Plot: Though racism simmers beneath the surface of this engrossing story, it is certainly not the focal point. Rather, Zerndt's plot is a beautifully written exploration of the relationships, loneliness, secrets, and past heartaches of three Mercer, Wisconsin residents trying to navigate their way through their troubled lives, each in very different ways.
Prose/Style: The prose is smooth and poetic at times, and the main characters' inner thoughts are expressed with beauty and introspection as well as pain and regret. Potent symbols like the loon, gypsy moths, Shawna's horse Seven, and Norm's Don Quixote statue further explore and expand the impact of both the dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) quality of the characters' thoughts, fears, and anger.
Originality: Zerndt explores the tropes of loneliness, secrets, and racism without reverting to hollow platitudes or unnecessary language. The story is the characters themselves--and its beauty is largely due to its character-driven motivations and inner explorations of both everyday and existential problems.
Character Development/Execution: The characters are well-written and tied together not only through their proximity in a small town, but through their shared experiences that transverse age, race, and individual heartaches. Trapped by both the town and their own minds, they are somehow both static and dynamic; the story-ending inferno somehow symbolic of their journey and rebirth into something new.
Date Submitted: April 01, 2021
Plot: The lives of three fairly ordinary characters in rural Wisconsin – one Ojibwa and the other two white – intertwine in a story that cogently explores racism, the toll of poverty, and complicated love. Cruel violence stirs up the narrative about mid-way, which creates a need for inevitable revenge.
Prose/Style: The prose in this appealing novel flows smoothly and effectively. The dialogue is appropriate for these rural characters and their often painful attachments and losses.
Originality: Although the exploration of animosity and distrust between white people and Native Americans is familiar, the book’s alternating points-of-view provide intriguing insight into these tensions.
Character Development: The characters and their respective points-of-view are consistent and distinct. They love and lose; they talk and grow. Racism and poverty play their parts. The three main characters, Shawna, Kay, and Douglas, each love others: a horse; a son and a dead husband; a mother. Kay – a lonely, alcoholic woman with mid-stage Alzheimer's, is extremely poignant.
Date Submitted: April 02, 2020
In Zerndt’s (The Roadrunner Cafe, 2016, etc.) literary novel, three lost souls cling together in an angry Wisconsin town.
Orphaned Shawna Reynolds, who is Ojibwa, is a few years out of high school and desperate to get out of her hometown of Mercer, Wisconsin. She resents most white people, who’ve exhibited no shortage of racism. “The poor kid didn’t stand a chance,” thinks Shawna as she watches a young white boy fish with his father. “Whether he wanted to be or not, he was a racist-in-training. Half the kid’s heart was probably already polluted, and by the time he reached high school, his insides would be entirely black.” She gets on OK with her next-door neighbor Kay O’Brien, at least. Kay is mourning her recently deceased husband and worrying about her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She mostly worries about what will happen to her son, who doesn’t yet know about the disease. That son, Douglas O’Brien, is doing his best to keep the family auto repair shop from going under, feeling responsible for the death of his father, hanging out with Shawna, and making drawings that nobody ever sees in his sketchbook. The three form a moody family unit of sorts, attempting to protect one another from the rest of the world, but when a local dispute over fishing rights turns into a larger conflict about race, the wounds that each of them has been nursing threaten to rupture. Zerndt’s prose is smooth and matter-of-fact: “As they waited at a stoplight in town, Shawna found herself staring at a fire hydrant. It resembled a little girl in a red coat, and, for some reason, this little girl looked to Shawna like she was about to jump off the sidewalk into traffic.” Kay and Douglas are compelling characters, but Shawna steals the show with her frank declarations and hard-bitten worldview. Engaging from the first chapter, the trio propels the reader through a meandering plot that neither shies away from timely issues nor drifts too far into despair. By the end of it, the reader is left with that wonderful sense of having truly been somewhere else for a little while.
A moving, character-driven tale of the limits of bitterness and regret.
Zerndt’s resonant latest (after The Roadrunner Cafe) traces the lives of three downtrodden characters struggling with death and despair in Mercer, Wis. Shawna Reynolds, an Ojibwa orphan desperately missing her deceased mother, considers most white people “polluted” due to the history of their crimes committed against her family. Living next door is Kay, a 64-year-old widow numbing the recent death of her husband with alcohol and becoming increasingly worried about her Alzheimer’s-induced forgetfulness. Kay’s son, Douglas, who lives with her, endures sluggish business at the family’s auto body shop while trying to be a friend to Shawna and coming to terms with his father’s death. Zerndt shows a knack for strong characterization as this trio of downcast friends melds into a cohesive unit, collectively processing their sorrow, disenchantment, and struggles. A community battle over a torched town mascot and fishing rights swirls up unrest between Mercer’s white and Native American populations, with Shawna embroiled at the center. Zerndt’s prose and storytelling acumen are on impressive display as he weaves together the lives of his characters, whose dreams and desires vastly outweigh their meager grief-stricken lives and uncertain futures. Compact and tightly plotted, this outstanding work is packed with emotion and restlessness. (Self-published)
Jamie Zerndt’s fourth novel, Jerkwater, is an emotionally intense, character-driven story about the intertwining lives of three likable protagonists in the throes of grief. Exploring friendship and enmity, rage and harmony, and retribution and liberation, the novel is by turns harrowing, comical, and heartwarming.
Set in the “jerkwater town” of Mercer, Wisconsin, hostilities simmer between the town’s whites and Native Americans. Shawna Reynolds, an Ojibwa, seethes. Her mother was murdered by her white stepfather, and someone just injured her beloved horse. Her stepfather’s friend, a beer-bellied bigot, becomes the object of Shawna’s white hatred.
Shawna’s ire doesn’t extend, however, to her white neighbors, Kay O’Brien and her son, Douglas. Shawna and Douglas graduated high school together “a few years back.“ They are companions when embroiled in acts of justice and destruction or when simply sharing a drink and conversation.
Kay grieves her husband’s death and numbs herself with Manhattans. When she discovers a trove of Norm’s secret poems, Kay is upended by betrayal. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Kay’s good-natured acceptance entertains. However, Zerndt’s exceptional prose dramatizes Kay‘s dread over her clouding mind.
For his part, Douglas is besieged by guilt over his father’s demise. A fledgling romance with Jenna, the new-to-town, beautiful artist, moderates his rumination. And Marty, his uproarious, sentimental coworker, provides comic relief.
Mercer is a boating and fishing community, and its lake occupies a distinct and effective presence in the novel. It is ever-darkening and seemingly bottomless, a symbol of the characters’ overlong agony. Townspeople fish there, and it’s where the characters meet, ponder, and find catharsis.
Zerndt’s tightly plotted storyline is told in alternating chapters from the characters’ perspectives. His prose aches in the telling. Kay and Douglas’s mother-son relationship comprise many of the novel’s poignant moments. Zerndt’s character development triumphs, especially that of Shawna, who unleashes vengeance in a gruesome ritual.
All told, readers will find Jerkwater a superb portrait of resilience and the redeeming power of friendship.