Richard Jones is a paranoid schizophrenic and recovering drug addict who also seems to be more than a tad bit obsessed with sex. That said, he actually comes off as a relatively likeable guy in Dan Martin’s Journey Back, which seeks to explore the impact of schizophrenia and drug addiction. Yet Jones still can’t save this debut novel.
When we first meet Jones, he leaves New York City and drives to San Francisco in 48 hours because “they knew where I was and how to find me.” Once there, Jones changes his name to Mitch James and embarks on a new life. The story is told in chapters that alternate between Jones and James. James tells his story in the first person. Jones’s story is told from the third person.
Martin, an attorney and psychotherapist, is familiar enough with the struggles facing those who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia or addictions to provide sufficient details to make the stories of the impact of those afflictions generally credible. The problem is a significant lack of internal consistency.
Jones was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic as a freshman in high school following a mental breakdown. Medication helped control his symptoms and he graduated with few suspecting his illness. Jones, who wants to be a writer, can’t afford his medication after moving to New York City. He discovers (or comes to believe) that he is more creative without it. Like so many others, he feels the medicine dulls his senses and intellect. Yet the psychosis into which he descends shortly after going off his medication leads to his arrest. He goes back on medication but, shortly after meeting and moving in with the equally troubled Anna, he quits taking it once more. His obsession with Anna results in him being committed to an institution for the criminally insane.
There, the medication again brings the mental illness control. Jones quits taking it, however, three days before escaping from the institution. Following his escape, he no longer takes the medicine and quickly descends into yet another breakdown, having only a “tenuous” grasp of reality. His agitation and paranoia increase until he sets off for San Francisco, fleeing the omnipresent “they.” And this is where Journey Back goes astray.
Granted, any story told by a mentally ill or unstable person may be nonsensical, particularly when their mental state has so deteriorated. That explains how, after initially returning to New York City following his escape, Jones can spend a week and a half driving and end up only 160 miles upstate. His paranoid state might even explain his ability to later drive to San Francisco in less than 48 hours. Yet the first person account of life in San Francisco presents a paranoid schizophrenic who has been unmedicated for months and barely in touch with reality “living a slow, comfortable domestic life.”
James, the new persona, almost immediately obtains a job writing for an alternative weekly. Not only is he coherent enough to come up with this new identity and hold onto this job, he ends up living with Cheryl, the newspaper’s assistant editor. She is unaware of his background and they carry on life working, socializing and entertaining like any other couple.
The story of life in San Francisco is very lucid despite the fact there is no indication James ever goes back on medication. Aside from occasional marijuana usage, James also stays free of illicit drugs. But then he learns about secret experiments with a new hallucinogen that allegedly can help cure alcoholics and drug addicts. To write about the drug, James must become part of the experiment, requiring him to leave Cheryl and move into a underground community created and run by the charismatic and mysterious leader of the project. His pursuit of this story and the truth about the drug is what leads to Journey Back being promoted as one of “psychological suspense.”
There is no doubt Martin writes with clarity given the fact his novel explores psychosis. But to classify either of the book’s two threads as a thriller or suspense novel is to overstate. Far more damaging, though, is the marked difference in coherency and rationality between Jones and James. Even though “as long as [Jones] took his medication he was able to function,” it is as if the mental condition that afflicts him seemingly vanishes once he reaches San Francisco. This dichotomy is reinforced by the use of the two narrative voices. The third party approach to pre-San Francisco life reinforces that Jones was too mentally unstable to tell his story. But why James has the mental wherewithal to narrate his “life” coherently is basically unexplained, if not inexplicable.
The obvious solution suggested by the book could possibly explain how James can so accurately recall what occurred prior. It does not, however, provide any sort of basis to enable him to lead a normal life given his state prior to arriving on the West Coast. Alternatively, perhaps the “slow, comfortable domestic life” Jones/James finds on the West Coast and the entire story is nothing more than a schizophrenic hallucination or his psychosis translating a troubled life into a good one in the mind only. If that is the case, though, then James is nothing but a fantasy created by an addled mind, completely undermining if not negating the book’s exploration and resolution of its core struggle — the one to overcome mental illness. In either case, Journey Back plainly demonstrates how significantly the choice of narrative voice can impact whether a book achieves its purpose.
What was there before the beginning? Something else.
Incan proverb quoted by Dan Martin, Journey Back