“Bartleby’s Revenge” tells a tale of the enduring bonds of childhood friendship in an unfamiliar tune. It’s a story about a man, a woman and the secret they share — yet it begins with two boys, at least upon first glance.
In this Vietnam-era coming-of-age story, author and UF alumnus Steve Robitaille manages to craft a story around the things that can go unsaid between two people, and how that plays out in the manifestation of both characters’ desires — with a dash of murder mystery that paces itself throughout the plot.
Jimmy and Peter, two preteens in the formative years of their youth are best friends — they’re close in the most innocent way boys their age can be, but to the prying eyes of their parents and Catholic community, there’s something unnatural about their relationship.
Despite the pressure, Peter and Jimmy don’t allow this to divide them, not entirely. Not after a terrible storm and a horrific accident anchor them to the same trauma, the same picture of them holding onto each other dear life.
As they age, Peter and Jimmy’s relationship, albeit forbidden, becomes more complex as Peter starts to challenge the rigidity of the gender binary, and Jimmy shies away from his convoluted feelings for Peter — but he can’t keep him, or her, as he begins to realize, out of his head.
It’s a lingering attraction that follows Jimmy after he graduates from high school, he and Peter part ways, and Jimmy goes to study journalism at UF and takes up a position as a student reporter at The Alligator.
As Jimmy begins to report on the marginalization of Gainesville’s Black community and joins in on anti-war protests, his fears and ambitions feel all too familiar. Peter remains a constantly running train of thought in his mind. Is this a preoccupation born of repressed lust, or is it forged out of a shared near death experience? Or is there something Jimmy could be repressing in the murky waters of his psyche, that only Peter— no, Patricia, has the answers to?
The trauma that Jimmy and Patricia share brings them closer in a unique way, but throughout the story, there’s a sense that both characters are holding back, Jimmy especially.
It’s this abject denial of queerness, or lack thereof when it comes to Patricia, that Jimmy spends his entire life trying to reckon with. Herman Melville’s, “Bartleby the Scrivener” acts as a motif in regards to Jimmy’s fascination with Patricia’s ability to fight against the constraints of heteronormativity, to “prefer not” to be like everyone else, to want more out of life.
But Jimmy challenges the status quo in his own way, determined to avoid becoming a casualty of someone else’s war.
Though the novel itself is long, the plot doesn’t meander and illustrates the internal conflicts of adulthood. It’s easy to relate to Jimmy’s insecurities, especially when it comes to maintaining journalistic integrity and non-biases in a time when every action and statement holds a bias.
However, as enjoyable of a spitfire narrator as Jimmy can be, the pacing of the story would have benefitted from interspersing his perspective with Patricia’s. Patricia is by no means underdeveloped, but because we don’t see as much of her evolution, it still feels like there’s something unsaid between her and Jimmy at the end of the story.
But perhaps that’s the beauty of “Bartleby’s Revenge” — not all truths have to be verbalized. Sometimes it’s just the knowing that’s enough, two friends recognizing they could’ve been something more, and realizing that in a way, they were.