Laughing Fire Press (2015)
Reviewed by Kristine Hall for Reader Views (01/16)
In “Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story,” author Jonathan LaPoma takes readers into the life of twenty-four-year- old Luke Entelechy as he takes his first full time teaching job at an F-rated school in Miami. The job is full of challenges, none of which are made easier by Luke’s personal issues and motivations — he takes the job mostly for the paycheck while he pursues his real goal of being a writer. As the school year progresses, Luke struggles to find a balance between the emotional, sometimes physical demands of his job and appropriate outlets for decompressing when the school day ends. And at the end of the day, Luke and his students are all aiming for the same thing: to survive.
The trouble with “Developing Minds” is that it can’t decide what kind of book it wants to be: a young twenty-something coming-of-age story or a new teacher survival story? The book never fully develops into either and the two storylines don’t harmoniously weave together. As a coming-of-age story, readers need to be prepared for explicit and degrading sex scenes, copious amounts of drugs and alcohol use, and carelessness with little to no remorse. Though there is a cast of memorable characters in this part of Luke’s life, they are unlikable and even despicable in their actions. Luke sometimes shows growth and seems on the cusp of maturity, but he fails time and time again to turn the corner, acting selfishly more often than responsibly. Admirably, despite his off-hours activities, he makes it to school every morning. However, readers must wonder what strides could have been made if only he and his co-workers had given one hundred percent to their students instead of the leftover, hung-over shells that showed up to teach?
As a new teacher survival story, “Developing Minds” is much more interesting, and the book is slow-moving until Luke starts the job. With the backdrop of about the toughest environment a teacher could be given, LaPoma’s world-building is outstanding. The school and all its occupants are in survival mode, and with chaos, disrespect, and violence the norm, the natural consequence is that administrators, teachers, and students must choose their battles — or check-out completely. LaPoma nails the emotional turmoil most teachers experience – especially in situations where they are not in control. The helplessness and despair of Luke and other teachers in the school is palpable, and it is in Luke’s progression of overcoming those feelings that Luke shows real growth. Unfortunately, just as he begins to understand his students, empathize with their situations, connect with them, and ultimately teach them, he abandons them.
Jonathan LaPoma writes very well, though some additional editing is needed to correct numerous comma splices, a few pronoun errors, and some page numbering issues. There were full side-stories that should have been edited out (namely in his relationships) as they didn’t add anything or move the story forward in any way. Though the book is pitched as dark humor or satire, I rarely found it humorous. Rather, it was disturbing, depressing, and ventured too often into the truly distasteful. Overall, “Developing Minds” has some excellence, but those parts are mostly overshadowed and buried in the raunch.