From the award-winning author of Bang Crunch and Boo, Jones is the harrowing, funny, utterly unforgettable story of a pair of siblings attempting to survive the horror show of their family.
Abi and Eli share a special bond. Eli looks up to his sister Abi, two years older, who knows how to inhabit the souls of animals, and sometimes even the soul of her brother. They share jokes, codes, and an obsession with impressive feats of word power—such are the survival tricks for growing up Jones. Pal, their alcoholic father, is haunted by demons from the Korean War, and their less-than-nurturing mother Joy hasn’t got the courage to leave him. Always moving to where Pal gets work, the Joneses go from Montreal to Boston, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and back to Montreal. No matter where they go, though, they can never get away from Jones Town.
And then, on Eli’s twelfth birthday, the darkness deepens when he stumbles on something he doesn’t understand—an episode that represents the beginning of Abi’s unraveling, although no one knows it yet. Over the years, Eli and Abi lurch towards and into adulthood on separate paths that sometimes cross, negotiating the world through sexual experimentation, drugs and alcohol, art and language.
Searing, affecting and often darkly funny, Jones explores the treacherous intersection between love and violence, and the extreme measures Abi and Eli must take to escape the legacy of a toxic inheritance.
About the author
A three-time nominee for the Journey Prize, Neil Smith published his debut collection, Bang Crunch, with Knopf Canada in 2007. It was later published in America, Britain, France, Germany, and India. It was chosen as a best Book of the year by the Washington Post and the Globe and Mail. His second book, a novel called Boo, was published in May 2015 with Vintage Books in the U.S., William Heinemann in Britain, and Knopf in Canada.
Excerpt: Jones (by (author) Neil Smith)
The show’s about to start. It’s a few minutes after lights out, and Eli and Abi Jones slip from their beds. They slide back their bedroom curtains, which are made of red polyester, though Abi swears it’s red velvet like in a theater. Curtains open, their window turns into a movie screen beaming scenes from the alley outside, what they like to call “the late show.”
The brother and sister, ages seven and nine, live with their parents in a cramped flat above a corner store named Perrette’s. They share a room, Eli’s bed on one side, Abi’s on the other.
They often hear milk bottles clinking together as the clerk at Perrette’s fills the fridges beneath their floorboards. Near the end of his shift, the clerk always flips on the rear outdoor light, then lays three or four bowls of cat food beside the falling-down, gap-toothed wooden fence running along the alleyway. The food lures cats from all around. Sometimes they fight over the kibble, sometimes eat calmly side by side. Raccoons also show up. The rare skunk. Local dogs, out for walks with their owners, dip their muzzles into the bowls.
Tonight, a muggy evening in July, a tabby cat shows up at the start of the late show. As it feeds in the shadows of the alley, Abi, her face shiny from the heat, says to her brother, “I’ve got a superpower, ya know.”
The way she speaks is garbled, more through her nose than through her mouth. Martian is what Eli calls this strange nasal language of hers, and only he can translate it effortlessly into English. “What kind of power?” he asks.
“My soul can leave my body and go inside animals,” Abi says. “When they roam around the neighborhood, I go with them. I live inside their bodies.”
“When you’re inside them, what happens to your own body?”
“I’m here, but not here. It’s like I’m under a magic spell.”
Eli wants to know more, but they aren’t supposed to talk during the late show in case their mother overhears and storms into their room, hands ready to slap.
In the alley, a hunchback, red-eyed raccoon waddles over while the tabby is eating. The two striped creatures begin a squabble, which draws hisses from the cat, snarls and shrieks from the raccoon. In its rage, the raccoon overturns the bowls of food, bares its fangs. The cat runs off.
“I’m inside that raccoon now.”
“How does it feel?”
“Real good.” Abi goes all dreamy, a medium in a trance.
The raccoon scoffs up the spilled kibble. Belly full, it hobbles away down the alley.
Abi’s soul drifts back inside her body. She pulls the red curtains shut, and it’s like the end of a movie. The siblings climb back into their beds.
In the dark, Eli whispers, “Can you go inside any kind of animal?” He hugs his teddy, which smells rank since he drools on it in his sleep.
“Yep, any sort. Dogs, horses, squirrels. I’ve even been inside a pigeon.”
“What about humans? Can your soul get inside them too?”
“No, no humans . . . well, except for one.”
“Who?” he asks, though he’s already guessed the answer.
The siblings are at a Cumberland Farms convenience store, which they call Perrette’s, in memory of the store they used to live above in Verdun. They’re eleven and thirteen. Eli has studied the number of calories in every chocolate bar sold here. “Test me,” he says.
Abi picks a bar from the candy display at the front of the checkout counter. Each kind is stored in its own little cardboard box. “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” she says.
Eli is seated on a chipped wooden stool behind the counter. “Hard one,” he says. “Um, two hundred and ten calories each?”
She glances at the wrapper, nods, then sets the bar back on the display, holds up a Milky Way.
“Two hundred and forty?”
Another nod. The test continues, with KitKat, Mars bar, Butterfinger, Eli answering correctly each time.
“You’re an idiot savant, Jones,” Abi says.
“It means you’re smart and stupid.” At thirteen, she has an eight-year-old’s breathy, giggly voice, but thanks to speech therapy, she no longer speaks Martian.
It’s an afternoon in early July, and there are no customers. The air conditioner is turned up so high Eli wears a sweatshirt, despite the heat wave washing over Massachusetts. The store manager lets the boy work alongside his mother, Joy, who pays her son an allowance out of her wages. He sweeps, mops, wipes smudges off the glass doors of the fridges, turns packages outward on the shelves, affixes prices using a sticker gun. But often he just sits on a stool and keeps Joy company. Customers may ruffle his cowlicks as they pay for their potato chips or soda pop. A week ago, a lady in a tube top gave him fifty cents, saying, “Aren’t you the cutest thing.” Hoping to earn more tips, he smiled sweetly at other ladies till Joy put a stop to his flirting. “You look like a perv,” she said.
Unlike her brother, Abi doesn’t help at Perrette’s, but today she’s dropped by on her way to the library. Bell bottoms dragging on the floor, a hemp purse strung across her chest, a bracelet of gum wrappers circling her wrist, she wanders the aisles checking the calorie count of marshmallows, chocolate syrup, tomato soup. “Jeez, granola sure isn’t health food,” she says, a box of cereal in hand. “Four hundred and forty calories in a bowl.” A slack-jawed look of surprise on her face. “Might as well eat a double cheeseburger.”
There’s a reason behind the obsessive counting of calories. They’re a big part of the Great Escape, Abi and Eli’s plan to run away to Manhattan. There, Abi hopes to become a model, ergo the need to stay stick-thin. Eli thinks she’s pretty enough, with the long, straight, wheat-blond hair of a Charles Manson disciple. Eli is also blond, but more the color of a manila envelope.
Their mother is the blondest of them all, thanks to Miss Clairol, but Abi claims the color is brassy, and, behind Joy’s back, she calls her the Brassy Broad. The Brassy Broad is in the bleach-smelling restroom at the back. “Hold down the fort,” she told the pair before scurrying off. She drinks too much coffee on the job and always has to pee. She also takes the opportunity to grab a smoke out back.
Joy returns, her helmet of curls freshly spritzed with hairspray and her frosty pink lipstick reapplied and bleeding into the tiny lines around her mouth. Five six and skinny, she lives on coffee and cigarettes. Joy smokes menthol Kools, Abi smokes Camels, and Pal, the siblings’ father, smokes Craven A’s. Eli plans to take up the filthy habit one day. He sketches cigarette logos in a black spiral notebook and obsesses over which brand to smoke.
As Joy slips behind the cash register, a guy in a rhinestone-studded cowboy hat comes in to buy milk. Eli likes overseeing the milk supply. When milk runs low, he heads to the cold room behind the fridges, slips on a heavy smock, then fills the wire shelves with plastic jugs, gallon and half-gallon. He tracks milk sales in his notebook so he’ll know when to refill the supply. After the cowboy leaves, he makes a tick in the whole-gallon column of his table. “Jesus Murph, what’s the point of that list?” Joy says. “We can see straight into the bloody fridges from here.”
Abi comes to the checkout counter. “Can Eli take a break?” she asks. “A gerbil at Animal Crackers had a litter of six babies.”
Eli’s face lights up; Joy rolls her eyes. “Gerbils are rats with better PR,” she says.
“They’re not rats. They’re little kangaroos.” He’s been trying to persuade Joy to let him buy a pair of gerbils, a male and a female. “Gerbils have no odor, so they aren’t smelly. Both the males and females care for their young. And they mate for life.”
He isn’t sure about the last fact but thinks it’ll impress Joy. It doesn’t.
“Mate for life, my arse,” she says.
No one says “arse” in Massachusetts, but despite having lived in Middlesex County for several years now, Joy and Pal still use words like “parlor” for living room, “chesterfield” for couch, and “flat” for apartment. The last letter of the alphabet is “zed,” not “zee.”
“Take my word,” Joy says to Abi, “men are more mongoose than monogamous.” She laughs at her joke, a big “Ha!” that startles the siblings, then she takes her pink pleather purse from under the counter, digs through it, hands over a few dollars to Eli. “Bring me back a coffee and cruller from Dunkin’, will ya,” she says.
As the siblings leave Perrette’s, Eli says, “There should be lightning and thunder in this doorway.” Due to the warm and cold fronts colliding, he means, but his sister ignores him, heads down the sidewalk that runs along the strip mall.
Animal Crackers is at the end of the mall, but when Eli is about to walk into the shop, Abi tugs on his sleeve. “I lied about the gerbils,” she says. Like her brother, she’s a good liar, can keep a poker face, but now her hazel eyes are as sly as Morris the Cat’s on the 9Lives poster in the shop window.
He looks unblinking at her, unsticks his sweatshirt from the small of his back.
“Hershey,” she says.
A code word. She’s sending him on a mission.
You could freeze a box of Fudgsicles in here, Eli thinks. At Rexall, the air conditioner is cranked up even higher than at Perrette’s. Going down the skincare aisle, he glances at the acne products. Abi has a surefire zit treatment: wash with the soap-free cleanser Cetaphil, dry your face, wait a half hour, then slather on benzoyl peroxide. “The trick is to use the mildest BP lotion, the two-point-five-percent one,” she always says, “otherwise you just irritate the skin.” At her junior high, kids with bad skin paid her for consults. Eli pictures her doling out advice at a makeshift wooden booth, like the one that Lucy the shrink uses in Peanuts. If his sister ever does become a model, her plan is to funnel her earnings into tuition for medical school. “A model’s career is five years tops,” she’s told him, “while dermatologists work for decades and earn a shitload. We’ll be stinking rich.” He likes hearing that “we,” her including him in her plans.
The target of his mission, this July afternoon, is Ex-Lax, which Abi calls Hershey. The makers of Ex-Lax, she says, are geniuses for designing their product like a Hershey’s bar, with chocolate-flavored squares you break off and eat. “All of the chocolate, none of the calories,” she says, like it’s the laxative’s official slogan. Hershey must contain some calories, Eli argues, but she insists those calories don’t matter. “Out with the old, in with the new,” she says, meaning shit away the old calories, start eating anew.
Another thing Abi does is stick her index finger down her throat to make herself throw up. She has a callus on the finger, near the knuckle, from her front teeth rubbing against the skin. She’s careless about cleaning the toilet bowl after a purge, and sometimes Eli, heaving a sigh, gets out the Windex and paper towels, then sprays the underside of the toilet seat and the rim of the bowl to wipe up the splatters.
At Rexall, Eli drifts past the laxatives, lifts an arm, and flicks a Hershey, lickety-split, into the sleeve of his sweatshirt. He’s a way better shoplifter than his sister, who’ll attract a clerk’s attention by swiveling her head like a maniac. Eli bets he’s on par with the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, though that grubby urchin pinched wallets, not Hershey or zit creams.
He leaves the store, joins his sister by the overflowing trash bins in the parking lot, slips the Hershey to her slyly, a detective passing along a secret file.
Abi tucks the box into her hemp purse, which carries her Camels and a flip-top steel cigarette lighter Pal gave her. “I’m going to the library,” she says, and the siblings walk together awhile along the main road, the sun bleaching their hair blonder.
“I’ve reserved Helter Skelter,” she says. “It’s a book about the Manson massacres. It has crime-scene photos of the stabbing victims lying dead, but their bodies are whited out.”
“Like with liquid paper.”
“Well, nobody wants to see the gruesome details.”
“I do,” he says. “I like the gruesome details.”
The siblings wave goodbye to each other, and Eli jaywalks across the road, heads back to Perrette’s.
When he comes in the front door, Joy glances up. “Where the hell’s my coffee and cruller?” she asks.
“Oops,” he says, then turns on his heels. In the doorway, on his way back out, lightning crackles, thunder booms. Not in real life, just in the fantasy world inside his head.
“Bold, sad and ruthlessly funny, Jones will open you up like a brick across your brow. Neil Smith writes like a tender, wicked arbiter, plumbing the depths of what family is and cannot be. I adored this book and its indestructible love.” —Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors
“With Jones, Neil Smith has conjured an irresistible and profound love story about a brother and sister for whom the ‘f-word’ is family. Smith lucidly and audaciously tracks Abi and Eli’s escape routes from their own personal Jones Town, deploying glacial wit while gouging holes into your heart. This novel is so deliriously alive, it snaps, crackles, and pops with the intense heat of its internal fire.” —Zsuzsi Gartner, author of The Beguiling and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
“A delirious portrait of two wise kids trying to survive two of the most utterly deranged parents ever let out of the womb. In Jones, Neil Smith blends humor and depravity with history, geography, queerness, and finds that rare language to document survival. This novel is ablaze.” —Anakana Schofield, author of Bina, Martin John and Malarky