Alberta author Gail Sidonie Sobat’s latest offering is the tale of an unlikely pair who discover that age is no barrier to friendship. After being convicted for marijuana possession, Jan is ordered to work in a hospice for seniors. There he spends time playing board games with Al, the resident smart ass. Their initially forced companionship quickly develops into a deep bond as Jan begins to share his past, revealing the emotional scars that have shaped him. Al, a former poet, becomes a father figure to the fatherless Jan, encouraging the teen to write and helping him see life for what it is – painful but punctuated with moments of pure joy.
Sobat realistically depicts the hormone-driven teenage mind. There’s an authenticity to Jan that is developed through the frank handling of his sexuality, his inner turmoil over being an outcast, the evolution of his feelings toward Al, and his developing relationship with Jodi, a hospice worker. The author deserves credit for not shying away from the awkward details of Jan’s private life, whether he’s squeezing a pimple or being berated by his stepmother for masturbating.
References to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (from which the book’s title is derived) and Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” feature prominently throughout the narrative. Jan and Al frequently discuss the themes contained in the poem and song, which tie in nicely with many of Jan’s epiphanies and moments of self-discovery.
This lyricism is also reflected in the book’s structure: in the early chapters, Jan is depicted as an empty, superficial character, and the sentences that form his thoughts and dialogue are short and choppy. As Jan begins to more fully understand himself and what it means to be a true friend, the sentences become longer and his sentiments more meaningful.
Not With a Bang accentuates the power of words to heal and connect. This is a genuine, thought-provoking, and poignant novel that should hold wide appeal.