Book Review: The Unwilling by John Hart
By Ray PalenFebruary 8, 2021
Set in the South at the height of the Vietnam War, The Unwilling combines crime, suspense, and searing glimpses into the human mind and soul in New York Times bestselling author John Hart’s singular style.
John Hart has long been producing quality literary fiction that has transcended different genres, yet he still is not the household name he deserves to be. I have a strong feeling that his latest release, The Unwilling, will rectify that. While his novels are typically set in the South, that region of the U.S. does not play as strong of a character here like you would see in something by John Grisham or Greg Iles.
The setting, however, does play a major part in The Unwilling as we are right in the middle of the Vietnam conflict, with the action of the story all taking place in North Carolina circa 1972. This is a crime story but also one of brotherly love. Our narrator is eighteen-year-old Gibson French, or ‘Gibby’ as everyone calls him. Gibby has two older brothers, Robert and Jason. Robert, regrettably, was killed in action while fighting in Vietnam, an incident that made his brother Jason immediately enlist to get some revenge. During Jason’s three tours of Nam, he purportedly killed upwards of 100 people, yet he returned home like many veterans of the war did—unheralded, addicted to drugs, and with a prison stay right around the corner.
The French family wants to make sure Gibby is insulated from the horrors of Vietnam and the outside world. As a result, his overprotective mother has literally arrested his development, keeping him from playing sports in high school or mingling with girls. Bill French, the father of the French family, is a police detective and he understands first-hand the challenges that put his son Jason behind bars and the lengths he will need to go to in keeping young Gibby from making similar mistakes.
This challenge will hit the French family sooner than later as they learn through the grapevine that Jason has been released from prison and is back on the streets. One of the first things Jason does is head down to the famous local quarry and complete a feat that his late brother had done successfully—high dive from the highest peak into the lake below. Gibby would never even consider doing such a bold and dangerous stunt but he is there to witness Jason nail the dive in much the same fashion as he watched Robert do it a few years earlier.
Following the dive, Jason invites his younger brother to go out the next day with a couple of women he knows. The foursome is filled out by Tyra—Jason’s girlfriend—and Sara, the hand-picked twenty-seven-year-old young lady Jason has in mind for his brother. During their day of drinking and skinny-dipping, their car pulls up alongside a prison bus where Tyra thinks it would be a good idea to do a tantalizing striptease for the prisoners on board. Unfortunately, one of those prisoners does not see the humor in this and has a good memory—especially when it comes to memorizing license plates.
That particular prisoner, upon returning to lockdown, has a meeting with the death row prisoner known as X, the guy who sort of runs the entire prison. He voices his displeasure at the young lady’s behavior and provides X with the license plate so that one of his contacts can track down the vehicle’s owner and teach them a little lesson in humility. That car was registered to Gibby, so the connection to former-inmate Jason is easily made. It comes down to a case of really bad timing as Jason has a very public split with his girlfriend, Tyra. Not long after that, Tyra’s body is found in a dump severely mutilated. In fact, her body is so expertly taken apart that the police are sickened by the case when they realize she was tortured and kept alive for hours by an expert in receiving schadenfreude or pleasure from someone else’s pain.
An APB is immediately put out for Jason as the one and only suspect in this slaying. Gibby is sure Jason is innocent, but he cannot take a risk in telling all he knows as he was also aware of Jason’s involvement in selling military-grade weapons. Nevertheless, Gibby feels he must find Jason before the police do. He also has a target on his own back as it was his vehicle that was spotted by those on the prison bus. When Gibby tries to find Tyra’s roommate Sara, she wants nothing to do with him as she believes he and his brother were somehow involved in Tyra’s murder.
Jason is eventually taken down and brought right back to prison awaiting trial. It is there that he becomes a pawn once again in the web-like plans of the prison mastermind X. Mr. X. has even prepared things so that Jason will be one of the witnesses at his own execution. Meanwhile, Gibby is far from a free man as the sick and demented individual involved in Tyra’s torture and murder (as well as several others) is out there looking for him and he plans to do the same to anyone in Gibby’s life that means anything to him as retribution.
The Unwilling is such an engaging read from start to finish yet really defies being placed into a particular genre as there is so much going on here. It is a twisted sort of coming-of-age novel, with Gibby as the star, but belongs in the discussion as a literary fiction novel that contains some horrific moments in much the same way as the works of Thomas Harris. John Hart has composed his most well-rounded novel to date, and I trust he will not be forgotten about when literary awards for 2021 are handed out.