I generally distrust message fiction. I've seen it done well, and I've seen writers--favorites of mine at times--wear their convictions on their sleeves so blatantly that the stories are completely derailed.
That doesn't mean that I dislike all pieces of fiction that deliver messages. When it works, a writer and his or her story can change my way of thinking, or at least bring me to re-evaluate my own life and actions.
Case in point: James Newman's Odd Man Out.
Some might consider Odd Man Out to be gay-themed, but I don't. Not really. Yes, the story deals with a gay teen at a summer camp and the horrifying events that occur there. The theme of Odd Man Out is larger than that.
I think it is a subject we can all relate to. Most readers are odd men out, and we've all been ridiculed for having our noses in books.
This short novel deals with a hot topic in today's society: Bullying. We hear about it in the news almost as much as we see the contemptible actions of the 2016 presidential candidates. The public is usually enticed to believe that an evil party, or parties, bullies an innocent individual. Black and white, no questions asked.
James Newman takes us deeper into the insidious nature of bullying in Odd Man Out. This is a searing cautionary tale, and a reader can easily imagine being caught up in the role of the victim. The really disturbing part of Odd Man Out, however, shows how possible it is for even decent individuals to be among the oppressors in the situation.
I'm not innocent. No, I've never committed violence upon anyone, but in my younger years I laughed along with others a few times when a poor kid was being verbally humiliated. Part of me hated myself for it, but another part joined right in. It didn't happen often, and I never made a practice of it, but my hands are not entirely clean.
Perhaps it was simple fear. Maybe I didn't want the same treatment to happen to me, and so I joined in the ridicule. Or maybe a nasty part of me, a part that we all have the potential for, reared its repugnant head.
I like to think I have gotten better, and I know that I have. I also know that I, and most of the rest of us, have to continually work to improve ourselves. We not only cannot engage in the ridicule of others, we cannot stand still and allow others to do it.
Thank God I never got close to anything similar to what happens in Odd Man Out. It's terrifying, but the violence never approaches exploitation. James is showing us the bitter truth of what tragically happens on a regular basis. Odd Man Out brings to mind other things like Nate Southard's Just Like Hell, and Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, and while these are all worthy and important pieces of literature, James Newman takes his readers deeper into what fuels the motivations of the antagonists. And he dares to show them a measure of compassion, while never for a second does he condone or be less than appalled and sickened at it all.
I've admired the writing of James Newman even before his debut novel, Midnight Rain, was published. I've enjoyed it all, but Odd Man Out is far and away the best thing he has published to date.
Odd Man Out has been published in limited hardcover and paperback editions by Thunderstorm Books. The softbound copy I bought is a lovely little item, and I recommend it without reservation. This is a book that should be read, and then passed on to others.