Loren D. Estleman’s Paperback Jack is an interesting turn on a lot of material that the author is more than familiar with. In the past Loren D. Estleman has written historical novels, mysteries, westerns, and others. He is best known for his detective novels, and this book brushes closely up against that area without quite matching. It is a book about an author.
Specifically the book is about the title figure, one Jacob Heppleman. Before the second World War he is a young man with a bright future in the literary world. After going to war and returning, he’s reduced to desperately filling a slot in the uncredited portions of a newspaper. Facing hatred toward veterans and dire financial straights, he desperately looks into rejuvenating his career. His old agent encourages him to go into paperback originals under a pseudonym.
This is not a book about him finding himself in a criminal conspiracy and having to get out. It is not a book about him solving some theft or murder. It’s the story of a man living his life through the Red Scare and decades beyond. It’s a man searching for life, love, and an understanding of what those things mean to him.
A desperate search for authenticity leads Jacob to interact with some particularly dark criminal elements; meanwhile his desire to be understanding leads him into various not quite friendships with his coworkers. The looming threat of the American Right, the Red Scare, and Congressional hearings is what ultimately and steadily proves to be the true great evil of the volume.
Paperback Jack is more a third party memoir then strict fictional biography or genre novel. A look at the author’s background will show definite similarities to the life of Jack, not the least of which being an author learning to get by. At the same time there are obvious deviations from the man’s life, and seeing it as a fictionalized autobiography would be a great mistake.
Calling this book thematically deeper than most of Loren D. Estleman’s work would be incorrect. Rather, like many good books taking up multiple decades, it allows the passage of time to reinforce not only history but the themes. It is an effective storytelling device, not original but certainly well used.
Paperback Jack is probably not what a reader will go in expecting from the title or author. That’s not a bad thing though. It is a moving, heartwarming story following the life of one writer as he attempts to simply get by and provide for those he cares about. Anyone who’s ever put pen to paper has at some point understood these basic drives, even if they went on to make enough money that they felt insulated from the risks later. This book is thoroughly recommended.