What’s not to like about a book about an orphan coming of age in Prohibition-era rural Arizona — surviving dynamite blasts, rattlesnakes, double-barrel shotguns, mine shafts, schoolyard bullies, barbed wire, cactus barbs, his grandpa’s cooking, dog bites, moonshine, relentless summer sun and a skeptical and strict disciplinarian of a teacher.
In his book “Jake and Me,” Arizona native, longtime Las Vegas attorney and currently Washington, D.C., federal Judge Evan Wallach takes you along as Jake Smith — being reared by his grandfather named Jake who is constable of Superior, Ariz., in the Superstition Mountains — narrates a year or so of his high school days and his summer job riding fence on a cattle ranch.
Wallach claims most of the stories are true, “as told to me by the old folks,” though he admits some may stretch the truth. That scene in which one of his characters — after sucking the venom from a rattlesnake bite on Jake’s hand — replies to Jake’s concern about what would have happened had the bite been on another part of his anatomy by saying, “That’s when you find out who your friends are,” is a joke older than the old folks, though Wallach cleans it up a might.
Well, as Mark Twain said, “Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.”
Though many writers, when they try to capture the vernacular of a region and era, sound stilted or contrived, the book’s narrative and dialog have an authentic sound and phrasing that can be heard across the Southwest from Texas and Oklahoma to Arizona and Nevada.
The depictions of rural life and work also ring true, from riding fence to Saturday night imbibing by the hands to knowing not to waste a penny .22 shell on a jackrabbit and wait for the cottontails — a lesson lost on a friend of Wallach’s from Searchlight — to the fact that in a small town everyone knows who you are and what you’re up to.
As lagniappe Wallach tosses in several simple, homespun recipes at the end of several chapters, a couple of which might actually be worth trying, though there aren’t enough chili peppers.
The poetry-spouting Scottish gentleman encountered during a search for the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine even gives the tale a touch of erudition.
Though Wallach puts his main character through some harrowing situations — several of which had the potential to turn the book into a short story with a tragic ending — one of the chief pleasures is watching a boy mature and develop moral character.
If nothing else it is worth the cover price just to read a lawyer make light of his lifelong profession by having Jake say, “I was past ten before I found out that ‘goddamn lawyer’ wasn’t one word.”
“Jake and Me” is a quick, pleasant and informative read, but as a longtime newspaper editor I must confess I was driven damned near to distraction by the number of typos, including spelling a couple of character’s names two or even three different ways.
All in all, Wallach has spun a good yarn.
The ebook can be downloaded from the Amazon Kindle store.