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Defector Reads A Book

My Year With Jack Reacher

This is Tom Cruise pretending to be Jack Reacher even though he is way too small to be Jack Reacher.
Toru Yamanaka/AFP via Getty Images

I am not, generally speaking, a person who looks on the bright side of things. I view cheerfulness in the face of calamity with a lot of suspicion, if not outright contempt, and have done since childhood—I remember watching Pollyanna with my Nana and telling her that I wouldn’t like to be friends with a girl like that. Nevertheless, around this time last year, as it became clear I would have to spend some significant time staying in my apartment, I told myself there could be an upside: I could finally get around to reading all the books I had been putting off for one reason or another. Some neglected American classics, the Victorian doorstoppers I skipped over in school in favor of different Victorian doorstoppers, the less famous Russians. 

I have not read any of those. What I have read is 24 books about an enormous drifter with comically large hands who is good at dispatching bad people. 

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series follows Reacher—just Reacher, no middle name and barely a first one, even his mother forwent using it—as he travels across America, by train or bus or hitching a ride. Fate or chance always end up landing him somewhere someone needs killing. He’s an ex-Army MP who was raised on military bases across the world by his French mother and U.S. Marine father. It’s this background, along with a rather baffling predilection, first noticed by psychological researchers from the military when he was six years old, to run toward danger rather than away from it, that makes him so formidable. He grew up learning the various fighting styles of tough kids around the world: “Martial arts from the Far East, full-on brawling from the seamier parts of Europe, blades and rocks and bottles from the seamier parts of the States. By the age of twelve [he] had it all boiled down to a kind of composite uninhibited ferocity.” Match that up with his dominating physique—6-foot-5 and 250 pounds—and you really don’t want to get in Reacher’s way. Of course, in each book some fiendish villain who thinks themself bigger or meaner or smarter than Reacher does precisely that. You know Reacher will prevail, but the satisfaction comes in figuring out exactly how, through a series of elaborate deductions, decoys, reversals, and ploys. 

I picked up the first one, Killing Floor, after my lofty quarantine syllabus collided with the reality of being laid off and very depressed: finally time enough to read all day and absolutely no desire to do so. I figured something light and diverting might do the trick and a friend had mentioned enjoying it. I read it straight through in one sitting. I didn’t even grab my phone to check Twitter, or glance away only to discover 20 minutes had passed while I stared at the wall, or find myself having to reread a page because a character mentioned having a sore shoulder which reminded me that my shoulder had been feeling a little weird and maybe that was a symptom I should look up. It was exactly what I needed and I loved it so I read the next one, and the next, then jumped ahead a few and started picking randomly by whatever title caught my eye. The Enemy? Sounds like someone I want to watch Reacher take down. Die Trying? Bet he doesn’t. 61 Hours? Till what? I simply must know. 

One trick I’ve found for managing prolonged depressive episodes is a dogged commitment to the pursuit of whims. It can be tremendously difficult to convince yourself to do the dishes, or take a shower, or read a book, so when a moment arrives where you feel even the smallest spark of desire to do something rather than nothing you should drop everything else you had foolishly planned and attend to it. So that’s what I did. I gobbled them up, taking a Reacher book everywhere I went: I read them in bed, on the couch, back in bed. I read three in two days and then was overcome with a panicky dread that I was going to run out of them too soon so I slowed down. I went back to the sort of books that used to thrill me and found them all wanting in one way or another. My heart no longer raced for psychologically complex crime novels written by women in which loving a man is always fraught and often deadly, or morally complex spy novels in which loving England is also those things. Reacher was the only thing that would truly do. What is it about these books that fueled such a feverish need?  

Perhaps it has something to do with the sentences. Lee Child famously loves to write short ones in his books about this large man. He peppers you with mundane information. Reacher orders black coffee. The coffee arrives. Something happens to attract his attention. Reacher thinks about it for a spell. “A spell” is a very popular unit of measurement in Reacher books. New Jersey cops and Southern waitresses and Nebraska farmers all invite Reacher to “sit a spell” or “wait a spell.” So he does. Then something else happens. Problems find Reacher, and he solves them. It is all laid out in a fairly orderly fashion. When you’re first starting out, the short sentences are irksome. A bit ridiculous, really. You yearn for something to break them up. The cool relief of an em-dash. Child refuses. Steady and percussive. Short sentences with minimal punctuation. Eventually you get used to it. It’s amazing what you can get used to, given enough time. It even takes on a sort of meditative quality. Something happens, followed by something else. 

Lee Child is no poet, but the last thing in the world I wanted was poetry. Poetry can sneak up on you—it has a way of making things happen all at once. I have been in no state for that sort of thing. Oh, you thought this was a pear? Little did you realize that it is also a person from my youth, now lost to me forever, whose love was as total as my betrayal. No thank you! Much easier on the heart when something happens, followed by something else. 

Especially when what happens is eight goons being taken down in an alleyway. The books are always anchored by set-piece action sequences and I never ever tire of them. They are laid out so precisely and convincingly that I have found myself thinking, “I should remember this thing about delivering an elbow blow, in case I’m ever in a fight.” This is a preposterous thing for me to think. If I was ever in a fight I would simply crumple to the ground and burst into tears. I write essays for the internet for Christ’s sake. And yet, somewhere deep in my soul, I think it’s entirely possible that one day having read Jack Reacher books will save my life. 

Or maybe it’s something less formal that hooked me. The writer Andy Martin once described Reacher as “a liberal intellectual with arms the size of Popeye’s.” He’s not wrong, exactly. Reacher’s arms are indeed large and he is a liberal in the sense that he will rain down unspeakable violence in service of a cause he deems just. It’s the intellectual bit I quibble with. Reacher certainly thinks a lot—one of the singular joys of the books is following along as he puzzles through various problems. He engages in feats of ratiocination redolent of Sherlock Holmes (a character, in fact, notes that his nickname among some Army personnel is “Sherlock Homeless”) and it’s a good thing these passages are so propulsive because if you stopped for even a moment to ponder what he’s actually saying you would realize he’s completely full of shit. Reacher depends on what I tend to think of as Dad Wisdom: beliefs held dear and delivered with the utmost confidence that are nonetheless entirely baseless. 

He believes in a kind of evolutionary biology that explains both the criminal mind and his own wanderlust: 

Millions of years ago we were all living in small bands … So there was a danger of inbreeding. So a gene evolved where every generation and every small band had at least one person who had to wander. That way the gene pools would get mixed up a little. Healthier all round.

Reacher is clearly a man of science. For instance, did you know that “most right-handed people end up walking wide counterclockwise circles, because most right-handed people have left legs fractionally shorter than their right legs. Basic biology and geometry.”

Basic biology and geometry. I read these bits of ersatz wisdom and my heart soars with love for my large friend, Jack Reacher. He also has thoughts on how America might improve its infrastructure:

They entered New Jersey. The blacktop improved and the shoulder plantings got tidier, as they always do. Every state puts a lot of effort into the first mile of its highways, to make you feel you’re entering a better place from a worse one. Reacher wondered why they didn’t put the effort into the last mile instead. That way you’d miss the place you were leaving.

I’m not close with my own father, but when I picture the Ideal Dad he is someone with definite views on the direction everyone in the world walks, due to relative limb length. The natural enemy of Dads is not Moms but the ability to Google. Probably the most famous purveyor of Dad Wisdom is Malcolm Gladwell, and I cannot tell you the sense of ease that washed over me when I discovered he is also a huge Reacher fan. I squealed with delight and for a moment it felt like everything in the known world had found its proper place. Gladwell even has a wonderfully Gladwellian theory about the books—about all thrillers—which involves four cardinal genres. Per Gladwell, there are Westerns, Easterns, Southerns, and Northerns, and all thrillers can be slotted in according to their protagonist’s relationship to the dispensation of justice. It’s utter hogwash and falls apart as soon as you think of a few counterexamples to each category. Reacher would love it. Would my dad? I don’t know. I can’t remember him ever reading a book when I was growing up, but perhaps that’s changed now. There’s so much I don’t know about him, but I’ve always assumed I would have plenty of time to find out. I don’t assume that anymore.

In any case, noting that Reacher is a paltry intellectual is not to say the books themselves lack skill. Writing a competent thriller is very difficult, evidenced by the vast majority of thrillers on the market. They are, by and large, unreadable. And Child does get to the heart of one fundamental truth about America, which is that from Manhattan to South Dakota it is a country run by bullies. Reacher is driven less by sympathy for the weak than disgust for those who abuse them. “I just hate the big guy. I hate big smug people who think they can get away with things.” Amen, Reacher. 

This last year has been absolutely lousy with big smug people getting away with things, and maybe my love for Reacher is as simple as thrilling to vengeance. This is not a flattering thing to consider but the fact remains I have cheered him on as, at a pace of at least 10 per book, he murdered well over 200 people in cold or tepid blood. Reacher isn’t particularly noble about it, either. He is perfectly happy to kick a guy in the balls or shoot him in the back, so as long as he doesn’t lose. He never loses, and I am so afraid I will just go on losing things.  

He’s often described as a mythic hero, something of the Western lawman or a knight errant. There is certainly an atavistic quality to him, but he is less a man out of time than one who exists radically in the present. Reacher has a “clock in his head” that he sets in lieu of an alarm and which allows him to never wear a watch. It’s a fun ongoing bit, but it also speaks to something fundamental about his relationship to the past and future. He knows what time it is this instant because that’s all he needs to know. 

Apparently, Child writes the books with the same sort of radical nowness. I get sweaty and dizzy when I contemplate this fact, but he claims he doesn’t plot them out in advance but just sits down and starts writing. Thinking about this has the same effect on me as considering geologic time, or the mortality of my dogs—stare at it too long and I risk madness. There is just no way it can possibly be true, and yet Child swears it is and I must believe him. Who would tell a lie that audacious? The only thing I can do with the terrible knowledge that Lee Child is out there just completely winging this shit is to avoid thinking about it. What you do not carry cannot trouble you.

Reacher understands this. His lack of attachments is extreme, traveling with nothing save a folding toothbrush, and buying new clothes when he needs them and leaving what he was wearing in the trash. Reacher appears, hands the size of dinner plates open and empty, carrying nothing from before and taking nothing into after. The nowness of Reacher exempts him from any relationship that requires a commitment over time, including a simple relationship like a promise. Nobody could ask Reacher to be somewhere next week or next year, and if you never make a promise you can never break one. A promise to meet your godson, or to hold your grandmother’s hand one last time before she dies. 

Lots of people have used fiction lately as a way to confront and master their fears. Post-apocalyptic novels became briefly trendy, but I’m not scared of how I might survive an apocalypse because I have absolutely no desire to do so. I would check out early, before all the constant running really took off in earnest. What I am most afraid of is the world carrying on basically as it is while I am left completely alone in it. As alone as Reacher, who has no family left, and whose closest friend, if you can call her that, is a woman with a pathological fear of being touched. And yet he goes on, from one place to the next, always ending up exactly where he needs to be and perfectly suited for whatever awaits him there. His loneliness does not kill him. He barely notices it at all. I would like to stop noticing mine so much.  

Or maybe I just want to go around punching people in the face. At the very least, I wish there were more books left for me to read.