The Inner Life of an Outer Mess
The word “compelling” is, perhaps, the most overused in the book reviewer’s arsenal. But it is hard to think of a better one to describe D.J. Swykert’s novel “The Pool Boy’s Beatitude.” Captivating, hard to stop reading, and intense, this is the story of a classic underachiever. Jack Joseph is the poster child for the phrase “too smart for his own good.” He has an advanced degree in physics and no shortage of intricate thoughts and conversations with himself about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life. What Jack doesn’t have is a clue as to how to actually live life. His marriage is failing due, in large part, to his unwillingness to confront his problematic drinking. He is involved in several sexual relationships with women who are married, his boss, or both. And his work, as a pool cleaner, is less than satisfying. He is, in short, out of control.
Juxtaposed with Jack’s careening around in his outer life, his inner life is full of complicated musings about everything from particle physics to religion to sex. The bulk of the book, in fact, takes place inside of Jack’s head. But before that scares you off (if the physics hasn’t already) the inside of Jack’s head is a fascinating place to be. On the outside, he is the classic charmer but on the inside, there is a great deal of depth, and author Swykert does a masterful job of imbuing his character with an inner life that keeps the reader involved and liking him.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Jack uses his complicated inner thoughts as just another way to avoid life. They are not so very different from the alcohol he drinks too much of: they are an escape, albeit a much more entertaining one for the reader. What Jack needs is something or someone to pull him out of his head. And, indeed, just such a someone appears, in the form of a married woman who is embroiled in her own life complications. Will she save Jack? Well, no. Will she help Jack figure out how to save himself? Well, maybe. Rather than a happy ending, “The Pool Boy’s Beatitude” presents hints of a hopeful ending. In what is, from start to finish, a very clever book, perhaps the most clever and provocative word is in the title. Beatitude can have many meanings. Does it refer to the mystical, proverb-like meandering sin Jack’s mind that are reminiscent of the beatitudes of Jesus? Or does Beatitude, in this context, refer to a state of being blessed and the grace that seems to find Jack near the end of the novel? That is one of the many things you will be thinking about long after you finish this uncommonly worthwhile novel.