Book Review: Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions by JR Helton

In his memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions, JR Helton (who goes by the name Jake in the book), visits his younger years in 1980s Austin, Texas. It’s a time of working shitty barely blue collar gigs that are hardly on the fast track to respectability and career success. And it’s also a time when he found himself on a never ending cycle of crappy decisions, which included a bad marriage, toxic friends and family members, drugs and alcohol and educational aspirations cast to the wayside.

Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions begins with Jake dropping out of the University of Texas-Austin to try his hand making it as a writer. Alas, Jake has to give up his writing ambitions and find himself a “real job.” His first job is a soul-sucking job with Austin Paint and Spray, which morphs into other awful painting jobs working with dangerous chemicals and even more dangerous co-workers and shitty bosses. Helton writes about his co-workers in exquisite detail that they spring to life on every page.

Jake’s personal life is also in shambles. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Susan, but their marriage proves to be more sour if not outright dysfunctional. The only thing these two lovebirds have going for them is a really hot sex life. Whereas, Jake eeks out a living painting, Susan takes on bunch of lowly office jobs, but soon finds her way into Austin’s growing movie production scene where she often has affairs with her co-workers, throwing it back in Jake’s face every chance she gets.

And it doesn’t help that Susan’s parents make for less than ideal in-laws. Her father is a washed-up football star with serious mental health issues and her mother is a faded, has-been actress.

But don’t feel sorry for Jake just yet. He proves to be less than an ideal husband. He’s sullen and misanthropic. His communication skills are almost non-existent. And he spends most of his time with Susan pissed off and has a strangely flirtatious relationship with her mother.

As for his own family? Well, they don’t come across quite some cuddly and lovable either.

And thus Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions goes on-Jake working one bad job after another and making poor decisions, which hound him in his younger years until he finally realizes it’s time to grow up and get it together when it comes to work, education, his substance abuse and to his too long marriage to Susan.

Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions is a memoir that reads like a novel, a bit similar to Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches. It also reminded me of two other memoirs of poverty and blue collar life-Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth and Ben Hamper’s Rivethead. It is a book written with true to life characters, a compelling plot and richly-detailed dialogue.

And though Jake is a bit of an anti-hero, he is one you end up rooting for especially once Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions reaches its satisfying end, which of course, you’ll have to read yourself.

 

 

 

Book Review: Nico’s Warriors by Mitchell Nevin

It’s a funny thing. I’m a fan of various televised crime-related shows like “Criminal Minds” and the various Law and Order series, but I’ve never been one to read a lot of crime-related books. But when local author Mitchell Nevin reached out to me to review his book Nico’s Warriors: A Veteran’s Revenge I just knew I had to read it considering it takes place pretty much in my backyard—the city of Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs.

Nico’s Warriors is about Zak Klatter, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan now back home Wisconsin. Driving home one night after a night of revelry at a local tavern, Zak picks up a duffel bag thrown from a speeding car being chased by the cops. Inside the bag Zak finds something quite interesting and decides the contents might help him in various ways.

But Zak knows he can’t do this alone so he gathers up a rag tag bunch to help him accomplish his mission, many of them his fellow veterans. They decide to rob and fight Milwaukee’s most venomous and deadly drug gangs to some incredibly results that prove to be lethal and ambiguous.

Among Zak’s comrades include Ethan who provides the brain power, Raul, who lost his beloved niece to drug addiction and Xavier, who provides the much-needed tactical expertise. Along for the ride is the idiosyncratic Dwyer.

In the meantime, Zak opens up a tavern (with plenty of help from his father), which he calls The Fallen. The Fallen is dedicated to honoring veterans, firefighters and police officers who have died in the line of duty. Not only does it provide plenty of alcoholic beverages (this is Wisconsin after all) for its patrons, it also offers basic pub food. The Fallen also acts as a quasi-meeting place for Zak and his gang to right the wrongs brought on by Milwaukee’s most nefarious and notorious drug kingpins and drug gangs.

Among Zak’s cunning crew also includes his family, his somewhat girlfriend Mandy and other assorted friends and acquaintances.

Then there are the other characters—fellow veterans and members of the Milwaukee-area law enforcement and other assorted individuals that make up both Zak and the Milwaukee community. Needless to say, Nico’s Warriors also looks into the inner workings of the city’s drug dealing culture, one that is quite chilling but quite fascinating indeed. What I found quite enlightening is how both cultures are not conveyed fully in black and white—both are painted in shadowy shades of gray—showing the good, the bad and the downright ugly in both cultures.

Nico’s Warriors is a fun read that kept me guessing, trying to put together a puzzle of people, places and things. Just when you think things will zig, they zag. Nevin clearly knows the world of crime and law and order, which is conveyed in both the actions and the dialogue of the characters.

Needless to say, I also loved how Nico’s Warriors takes place in Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs. It names lots of familiar Milwaukee neighborhoods and its city streets, including my very own Farwell Avenue on Milwaukee’s lower east side. I had a bit of a giggle over the name of a radio host Jack Plankinton and his show “Walking the Plank” for Plankinton is an actual street in downtown Milwaukee (it crosses Wisconsin Avenue if you need to know).

Nico’s Warriors ends on a very mysterious note. Zak and his gang don’t quite finish their mission. But don’t fret my readers for a sequel is coming out shortly and this book is part of a trilogy.

Nico’s Warriors does have a few faults. I noticed several spelling and grammatical errors, but nothing that can’t be fixed with the help of more proofreading and of an experienced copy editor.

For the most part Nico’s Warriors: A Veteran’s Revenge is a pretty solid effort for a first time author, and if you’re a fan of the crime genre, you’ll probably enjoy reading this book.