This Side of Jordan - Violent jazz age novel by Charles M Schulz's son Monte

Monte Schulz's This Side of Jordan is the first volume of a jazz-age trilogy that was twelve years in the writing, produced in tribute to Schulz's father, the cartoonist Charles M Schulz. It is beautifully written and thoroughly researched, a veritable time-machine that whirled me through time to the dirty back roads of the American midwest in the year before the Depression.

This Side of Jordan is the story of Alvin Pendergast, a selfish, ignorant, bitter consumptive farm-boy who lights out across America with Chester Burke, a vicious gangster and serial killer. On their first job, they pick up Rascal, a mad dwarf who's been imprisoned by his aunt who hopes to steal his inheritance. The three set out on a series of violent, picaresque adventures as Chester drags them from one act of bloody, senseless criminality to the next.

Did I mention how good the writing is? The writing is excellent. The characters -- the unlikable, passive Alvin; the unlikable, psychotic Chester; the unlikable, compulsive liar Rascal -- are extremely well drawn. The setting is so vivid I felt like I could fall into the book and lose myself there, landing on some dusty road in a tourist camp where the hicks waited to be fleeced or killed by Chester.

In case you missed it, though, I should reiterate that I didn't like any of these characters. The most active character was a sociopath. The secondmost active character was a hopeless, compulsive liar. The point of view character never does a thing off his own bat, and is, instead, led through the action by the people around him.

But I kept reading. I couldn't stop. This book is a masterpiece of setting and storytelling, even if most of the dramatic tension came from waiting for someone who wasn't an utter fool or villain to do something, anything, to change the situation.

This Side of Jordan


  1. Everything but the time period sounds a lot like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. A horrifying storyline that is so well written I couldn’t stop reading. I love McCarthy, but I need to take long breaks between his books.

  2. The cover of this book heavily reminds me of Jason Lutes’ “Berlin Trilogy”, which is a graphic novel set in late Wiemar Republic Germany. It’s got a diverse cast of characters – rich, poor, artists, intellectuals, workers, Communists, Nazis, Jews and even a black American jazz band make an appearance. It captures the social, economic and political fragmentation of the inter war period – the disappearance of “traditional” morality, the cultural ferment, the extremist politics and the economic depression.

    I think you’d really like it Cory, if you haven’t already read it.

  3. “most of the dramatic tension came from waiting for someone who wasn’t an utter fool or villain to do something, anything, to change the situation.” – maybe it’s just me, but without at least one empathic character, there’s no empathy; hence no stake in the outcome of the story. I’ve yet to find a story like this that I enjoyed.

    Still: I generally like Corey’s picks, so if I see this book, I’ll pick it up anyhow, just to see if I can be converted :)

  4. It’s not just you, Dewi, but it’s also not everybody. I know a lot of people who can’t read a book that doesn’t have at least one character in it that they like, but I myself am perfectly capable of enjoying a book full o’ bastards.

    1. Doesn’t need to be a *like*. Just an *empathise with*. I guess in my mind, “being able to relate to someone” is a prerequisite for “being at all interested in them”. This, to me, feels like a brokenness: I should have at least some interest even in people I cannot relate to. I shall have to probe this further, possibly with the aid of this book.

  5. Monte’s first novel, “Down by the River,” has a character named Jane Crockett who is very likeable — and sexy in a free-spirited, non-sleazy way.

    I wouldn’t say that “This Side of Jordan” has a character comparable to Jane, but being memorable is as good as being likeable.

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