Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen centers around Sam, a gifted runner and soon-to-be high school graduate whose Tourette’s has kept him apart from almost everyone in his small town. He is frequently picked on by some of the other kids at his high school, and emotionally abused by his step-father, Old Bill. Sam also suffers from low self-esteem, both because of his Tourette’s, and because he mistakenly believes that his Tourette’s is his only inheritance from his long dead biological father. Although the novel contains an accurate portrayal of Tourette’s Syndrome as a condition, I was largely unimpressed by the role that TS plays in the story as a whole.
You can’t technically be diagnosed with Tourette’s unless you suffer from multiple motor tics and vocal tics, and I was pleased to see that Sam met all of those requirements. He suffers from neck and shoulder spasms, as well as vocal tics like humming or squawking noises. His tics are worse in the evenings and minimal to nonexistent when he’s running, but he’s never able to fully forget about them either.
To me, the emphasis on Sam’s tics is one of the strongest parts of the story. Not because Tourette’s shapes his character, or even because it dominates his entire life. But because having Tourette’s means learning to manage your symptoms day in and day out, and constantly waiting for the next outburst. There are no big, grandiose descriptions here of how uncomfortable tics can be. There’s just the unsettling realization that you, as a reader, are made aware of Sam’s tics whenever Sam himself is aware of them, which reminds you of how pervasive they are.
I thought that the inconsistency of Sam’s Tourette’s was also handled incredibly well. One of the frustrating things about tics is that they manifest themselves in different ways and for different reasons. When Sam is anxious about something, or when he’s under social pressure to control himself, his tics become far more noticeable. During a scene where he’s confronted by a couple of guys from school in front of the girl he’s interested in, Sam is so stressed out by the possibility of embarrassing himself that his tics are much worse than usual.
His fear of being stared at or scrutinized because of his TS is definitely one that I share. Even on days when the tics feel more manageable, it can be really intimidating to have to explain that you aren’t just fidgeting or sniffing or clearing your throat for no reason. When your muscles behave outside of your control, when you do or say things in public that draw unwanted attention, it’s hard not to feel like you’re constantly onstage, in front of a crowd that may or may not laugh at you.
Though not everyone with TS has social anxiety or low self-esteem, Sam’s struggle with these additional issues felt true to his character, especially given his family situation and the unpleasant reputation he has in his small town. However, I have to question the purpose of Friesen’s decision to write Sam as the town pariah, instead of a harmless oddity with a screwed up home life. Friesen is open about his own struggles with TS, so there’s a definite possibility that he spent the majority of his teenaged years feeling as ostracized as Sam does. No two experiences with Tourette’s are the same, and I know that I’ve been overwhelmingly fortunate to be accepted throughout my experience, but I honestly couldn’t understand why so many of the characters were disgusted by Sam.
His math teacher asks him to leave because he’s “distracting the class” at one point, but shouldn’t that teacher be accustomed to Sam’s condition, considering the book takes place at the end of Sam’s senior year when he’s already spent four years at the school? His psychologist is written like a nosy, incompetent gossip, which is a stereotype I’d be happy to never see on the page again. A woman in a bookstore calls him a monster after his motor tics act up, because he knocks a whole bunch of books off a shelf and one of them accidentally hits her son.
Friesen also resorts to the highly sensationalized TS trope of coprolalia—the involuntary use of obscenities that very few TS sufferers actually have, but that authors overuse a ton as a way to embarrass their characters. One of Sam’s cursing outbursts occurs in the math class scene after he has already been asked to leave, and another occurs during his graduation ceremony.
The graduation scene would’ve been uncomfortable enough with Sam desperately trying to keep a lid on his motor tics in front of everyone in town. Having him also interrupt the speaker with badly timed profanity only reinforces the sense of “otherness” that many people struggling with disabilities feel. Publicly humiliating a character who already receives very little support from most of the people he knows is not the way to normalize any illness, and Tourette’s Syndrome is no exception.
All told, I would’ve enjoyed Jerk, California a lot more if its depiction of life with TS was handled as well as its depiction of TS itself.