Good Neighbors by Ryan David Jahn (WOW!)

Monday, December 12, 2011


Good Neighbors
Had she continued straight, she might have seen the Fiat moving toward the next intersection. She might have seen the intersection's green light turn yellow. She might have heard the RPMs kick up a notch as the driver of the Fiat strained the small car's small engine further, pressing the gas pedal to the floorboard. She might have seen the yellow light turn red. She might have seen the Fiat fly into the intersection despite the red light. She might have seen a green pickup truck entering the intersection at the same time from the right.

Kat Marino was returning to her Queens apartment from her shift at a local bar at 4 AM in the morning, when she was attacked by a man, who was hiding beside a tree nearby. Kat had never met the man before and is completely taken by surprise and shock. A few of her neighbors whose apartment windows face the courtyard, where the action was unveiling, hadn't yet gone to sleep and were watching dazed, having been interrupted from whatever argument or conversation they were preoccupied with at that hour. None of them however make a move to help her. None call the police either. While Kat screams for someone to help, and every observer assumes someone else is making that 911 call, this 280-page short book gives us a brilliant insight into the lives of all the people, whose paths cross Kat's, however marginally, between 4 and 6 am.

This is one of those books I wish I had reviewed right away. I know my head was buzzing with thoughts to share with you but somehow I'm only getting to it now - a good month after reading this book. Even now, I cannot stop thinking about how brilliant this book was and how much I would love to reread it. Good Neighbors is based on a true incident whose details are very much similar to that of this book's. If you don't want to be spoiled by the details of the real crime, skip the rest of this paragraph. New Yorkers will probably be aware of this incident better. 29-year old Kitty Genovese was returning home at 4 am in 1964 when she was attacked by a man thrice, the last time fatally, over the span of a half hour. A lot of the neighbors saw some part of the attack but no one saw the whole thing. Nobody called the police believing that someone else was making that call, though a few claimed to have called. There's a term for it - bystander effect. The New York Times posted an interesting article on this tragedy a few days later. A lot of the facts about this murder are disputed, but it does appear apparent that very few people responded to her calls for help, and although one man did call the police, they didn't turn up. "I didn't want to get involved" was the predominant sentiment.

Good Neighbors is a work of fiction. Although it is based on the Kitty Genovese murder, all the characters in it are fictional. In Good Neighbors, Ryan David Jahn sets an incredible array of characters against this tragedy. On one side, we have Kat making her way home, only to be attacked by a man who then just runs away, leaving Kat shocked and immobile outside. On the other side, we get an inside look into some of the neighbors who see a part of the attack. They are each however plagued by their own problems, so much so that they only feel an odd sense of curiosity over what's happening in the courtyard, before they return to their problems. There is a 19-year old boy who has been ordered to report for the Army's Physical Examination, but he also has an ailing mother he has to look after. Another couple is playing swinger for the first time, until it goes horribly out of control for them, making them question their own relationship. Yet another man is trying to come to terms with his homosexual orientation, but is finding himself reluctant to. Another man, who knows Kat very well, had just left in his car when his wife returned home panicking after hitting a stroller. His own actions form a subplot within this book, opening the pages to more characters - a paramedic, a corrupted cop and his equally corrupted chief, and a paedophile, while they get themselves involved in a car accident just down the road and in an attempted murder.

The huge number of characters is the main asset of this book. While it would have been easy to end up with cardboard cutouts instead of solid characters, Ryan manages to carve out intricate characters, none of whom get 'boring' for the reader. The primary sensation you get is that of the role of fate or chance in life and people's beliefs that they are the center of the world and hence their problems are the most important ones in the world. I found it very interesting to read about all the problems the other characters were having, while a woman was dying outside and calling for help. The last chapter left me thinking a lot - was it worth trying to fix your problems while a woman was losing her hold on life minute by minute? When is it okay to say that "my problem is important, because it affects me and only I can fix it!" Would you be selfish for thinking that or just looking out for yourself? Would you be happier having saved a life, but in return lost everything that meant the world to you? Or would you end up feeling resentful towards life for how things turned out for you? It's fascinating how complex we humans really are. There's plenty of gray in every picture. This book could be an intriguing theater production - I'm sure the questions it raises will be quite humbling. Quite a few of the stories come to some interesting conclusions by the time the clock strikes 6 am. I did feel very curious as to how their stories led from there, because many of the lives did change drastically.

Good Neighbors is one of the best books I've read this year, and I think waiting a while to write this review was a good thing in one respect - in that I know the book has withstood the test of time, wherein sometimes you find you loved a book immediately after reading it, but days or weeks later, your perspective changes a lot, and you start criticizing the book quite a lot, but this book has managed to leave me still impressed a month later. Have any of you watched the movie Crash? The story-telling technique is very similar here - a multitude of protagonists with their own issues, apparently unconnected, but they all have something that ties them together. If you haven't watched the movie, you should. I hope I have convinced you to pick this book right away!


I borrowed this book from my library. If you're interested in reading about the real Kitty Genovese, this piece on TruTV is fantastic.


36 comments:

Wendy said...

Wow, is right! I will need to check this book out with a rave review like this one! Thanks for the heads up on a book which sounds right up my alley!

Ti said...

If your review didn't signal to me that this is a wonderful book, then the "WOW" that you included at the top certainly did. I love this premise. Sounds like a perfect read to me. 

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I was thinking that was so scary because it could be true when I saw that it was based on a real event.  I need to look for this book.

Scribeswindow said...

This sounds fantastic!  I'm going to add it to my TBR list.  Thanks for that.  :)

Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Wow, now I really want to read this one!  Thanks for the awesome review.

Bibliophilebythesea said...

I love the sound of this one. I'm so happy I read your review.

Helen Murdoch said...

This sounds so good! I am intrigued by the idea of bystanders not doing anything because we all say we would act. But would we? It's so easy not to or to assume someone else has already made the call. This one goes on my list!

softdrink said...

I remember the Kitty Genovese story from Freakonomics (or was it in SuperFreakonomics? (which I never did finish)). I can't remember the point they were trying to make, but I remember the discussion about bystanders who didn't want to get involved. So I thought of that immediately when I read the description of the book. It sounds fascinating, although in a depressing way.

christa @ mental foodie said...

I learned about the bystander effect in my social psych class back in college many years ago. This sounds interesting, but seems like this is more of a character-driven than a plot driven story? christa @ mental foodie http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/

Yvonne said...

Hi Aths,

Good to 'meet' you, especially after coming across such a fantastic review, this book has made it straight onto my reading list.
It just shows how wrapped up in our own lives we are, that we can choose to close our eyes to others in need and assume that someone else will already be helping, so we don't need to. It is something that most of us are no doubt guilty of at sometime.
There sound like some excellent characterisations and perceptive observations about the protagonists, I am really looking forward to checking this one out some more.
Hope that you have a great weekend.

Nadia said...

Aths, so glad you review this one. Now I've heard about it via you and now I need to read it ASAP! Thanks! By the by, great post!

zibilee said...

I can't imagine seeing something like this and not doing anything about it, but I am sure that after reading this book, I would probably understand a little more fully. It sounds like a wonderful book, and your review on it was excellent. I have to admit that I have never heard of this one before, but now I want to rush right out and read it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it with us and for making me think about things in a different way, Aths. Fantastic review today!

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you love it as much as I did, Wendy! I will be looking for your thoughts on this.

Athira / Aths said...

It was perfect for me! I hope you will love it as much as I did! 

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did - I was shocked to read about the real incident - really sad! 

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it.

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it !

Athira / Aths said...

Yay! I hope you like this one. I found this book accidentally at my library, and am glad it was so good. 

Athira / Aths said...

It was still so shocking. Apparently, 38 witnesses were found for the original tragedy, none of whom called the police. And this was supposed to be a respectable middle-class neighborhood. I can't even begin to fathom how shattered the woman's family would have been - to lose someone when they could be saved by intervention is a harder thing to accept.

Athira / Aths said...

Yeah, it was depressing at points - I was trying to telepathically yell at the bystanders to please call the police, even though I knew what would happen. It is mind-boggling! 

Athira / Aths said...

Actually, it is a bit of both. There are quite a few plots going in this book, and good characters too. I wouldn't say it is very character-oriented. It's actually a crime thriller. I think you will like it - I know character-oriented books don't work that well for you, and I think this has enough of a plot and not much of a colorful character analysis that you will like it.

Athira / Aths said...

Yvonne, thank you for visiting! I found it scary too that people were just submerged in their issues and not helping someone in need. The fact that it actually happened is even more frightening. I hope you get a chance to read this book - I will be eager to hear your thoughts.

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks Nadia!! I hope you get to check this book out - it blew my mind away! 

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you get to read this book soon! I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it enough. 

ChewDigest said...

This sounds fabulous. I have often wondered what was going through the minds of people with the Genovese case and even though I have watched multiple documentaries, still haven't accepted it. Even now, when I see something happen, I think of her and I don't assume that other people are calling 911 or are responding, I call, run, whatever the situation calls for. 

Maybe a fictionalized account will help me understand the mindset of those people so many years ago.

Amy Reads said...

I just can't imagine not doing something in a situation like this... really humbles you to think of how humans can really act doesn't it? Also, makes me think of countries like Germany and South Africa and how when humans are just willing to let things be and focus on themselves, things can get pretty terrible...

Lenasledge said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Would make a great made for tv movie. Kinda puts me in the mind of the film Crash.

Care said...

This sounds very interesting.  Great review.  I remember the case tho I don't remember why or which class I must have had that discussed it.

mike draper said...

I grew up not far from where Kitty Genovese was killed. I bet this is a good book. Normally I have trouble with a large cast of characters but it seems to work in this book.
Mike

Bibliophilebythesea said...

Aths,  Wanted to stop by to wish you a wonderful Holiday; hope it means special time with family and friends.

Athira / Aths said...

I can't say that I understood the people's mindset either. It's crazy imagining that these people just watched the tragedy happen and did nothing about it. I guess what they saw appeared trivial to them, like a lovers' squabble, or a fleeting disagreement. That doesn't excuse their actions, but maybe that would help us understand.

Athira / Aths said...

Half the time, people abstain from helping because of how "messy" things can get for them - police intervention, interviews, etc. I've heard people offer that as excuses for not acting, pretty pathetic really. Still, knowing that, it would be nice if governments made the process easier.

Athira / Aths said...

Crash was great! I feel like rewatching it too!

Athira / Aths said...

I read during my research after reading this book that this has become a textbook case. I keep thinking what the family must be going through - knowing that she could have been saved but wasn't because some people didn't want to go through any trouble. Sad!

Athira / Aths said...

It really worked here. I was worried the people will just glaze through the book, but it was far better than I expected.

Athira / Aths said...

Thank you so much, Diane! I hope you had a wonderful holiday!