Review: The Grand Ballast by J.A. Rock

In a future where live sex shows abound to keep a jaded population entertained, dancer Bode Martin falls for the brilliant and unstable Kilroy Ballast, who molds Bode into the star attraction of his erotic circus, the Grand Ballast. Drugged beyond any real feeling, Bode trades freedom and his once considerable pride for an illusion of tenderness—until he inadvertently rescues a young man from a rival show, and together they flee to an eccentric town in the west where love still means something.

Valen’s not an easy man to know, and Bode shed his romantic notions under Kilroy’s brutal employ. Yet their growing bond becomes a strange and dangerous salvation as they attempt to overthrow the shadows of their pasts and wade together through a world of regret, uncertainty, beauty, and terror.

But Kilroy won't let Bode go so easily. Long ago, Bode was responsible for the loss of something Kilroy held dear, and he still owes Kilroy a debt. As the three men battle toward a tangled destiny, Bode must decide if his love for Valen is worth fighting for—or if he was and always will be a pawn in the story Kilroy Ballast will never stop telling.

WARNING: Contains violence and noncon. Not a genre romance.

Let me just expound on that last line of the description. No, it's not a "romance" but it is about love and all its permutations. What does it look like? Feel like? Do we know it when we have it? What do we do with it? Where does it go when it's gone? 

No, it's not a romance but it is brutally romantic in its honesty about the nebulousness of love and Bode's ironic journey to discover what it means to him.

The non-con and violence warnings... I really want to say just disregard them because life can be a fucked up mess and we live through those atrocities daily. If we can live through a man being burned alive for some misbegotten religious fervency then this book is a walk in the park, comparatively speaking. Yes, those elements are present, but most are not explicit or drawn out.

But, I will caution those prone to depression and/or suicide please exercise caution. This book is very gritty and emotional while being both weighty and transcendent.

It made me ugly cry. If you know me, you know how significant that statement is. I would encourage all those considering this to know your limitations and read other reviews.

People had grown bored with everything but violence and sex.

If I had to choose one word to describe my reading experience it would be discomfiting. 

I was intensely, severely discomfited virtually from word one. It wasn't the events themselves per se that made me so uneasy, but the social commentary and the possibility that this future world J.A. has envisioned could actually come to be. I hope I'm long, long gone if it ever does, but if not, then please PLEASE let me be part of Harkville. Because crossdressing.

The Grand Ballast is a stirring and sometimes surreal fun-house that left me wrung out emotionally and rawThe Grand Ballast is a traveling X-show in a futuristic vision of America set in the "Age of Ennui" after we've lost all interest in social media and visionary ideas. We've become indifferent toward... everything. Brains reduced to only the Id component of the psyche. People are only interested in being shocked by debasing and/or acrobatic sex between any number of people all while they eat their hot dogs and popcorn. If one of those stars is beaten during the show with "the ring stick" for resisting or lacking enthusiasm, so much the better.

The dichotomy of it all was what I found most disturbing . The image of innumerable bored drones sitting in a big top tent eating cotton candy while Bode is gang banged with two or more cocks stuffed into his orifices and cheering only when something is outrageous enough to garner their interest is beyond absurd. When he doesn't "perform" they've no qualms about throwing their carnival food at him while he's cuffed and helpless on a cross, but they get upset when Kilroy backhands him after he saves Valen? Completely nonsensical.

That people could become so devoid of humanity, so disinterested in life, that the concept of compassion could become so warped sickened me. The prose that was used to illustrate this indifference is in equal measures amazing and horrifying with Bode being the shining star even at the darkest times. He somehow manages to retain a purity, an innocence that resonated with me. As much as he believes himself to be broken and tainted he really is guileless.

Bode is a complex character. I'm not sure I've ever read one more complex than him. In the simplest terms, he is a dancer who wants to change the world. He wants to be seen, really seen. He wants to distance himself from his parents and their dull monotony. His dreams are bigger, greater. He is special and he's going to break the mold. But what he wants most of all is someone to love him, and for that person to encompass all of his deepest desires. 

It can't be love
For there is no true love
You said the union forever
You said the union forever
You cried the union forever
But that was untrue
Cause it can't be love
For there is no true love

~The White Stripes

He wants it so badly he creates it with smoke and mirrors and clings to it even though it's a mirage. Kilroy Ballast is that mirage and someone I'd dearly love to case study. He's another complex character. He's the manipulative, calculating, brilliant sociopathic ring leader of The Grand Ballast and Bode's lover. Their relationship is abusive and obsessive and told through Bode's flashbacks. It was easily the most difficult aspect of this book for me personally.

I found myself pleading with Bode not to go back to him, to get as far away from him as possible. Just run and don't look back! The notion that Bode is subjected to all this pain and torment because he made one mistake, the mistake of loving a monster who simply isn't capable of fulfilling his needs? Bode who initially couldn't even bring himself to curse? Bode who is a dreamer? Bode who personifies innocence? Bode who subjects himself to the whims of a madman in some misguided attempt at restitution for a crime he didn't commit? 

The injustice of it gutted me. 

And yet, oddly, I felt sorry for Kilroy more than anything else. He completely deserves what he ultimately gets. He had the devotion, loyalty and love of someone so pure and couldn't recognize it for the gift it was and didn't know what to do with it. So he tried to crush it instead and that made me pity him. But out of those ashes Bode rose to try again with Valen.

Valen, The Boy of the Water, who's no boy at all but a man who's so confused, brainwashed, tired and disillusioned with life that he's volunteered to be the star of a snuff act in another X-show when he and Bode first meet. Their relationship is laborious which is what ultimately makes it so sturdy. They do not pull punches with one another. They've both lost something of themselves, both struggle with PTSD, but neither have completely lost hope. They enrich one another. They compromise. They have an "ordinary magic" that brought me to ugly tears.

Maybe we are all here for the simplest reasons.

The irony of Bode's journey given its origins was unquestionably my favorite part and exquisitely executed by J.A.. The world building is a true melting pot that is rich and vibrant. The secondary characters are distinctive, bizarre and compelling. The Grand Ballast is an artistic achievement that supersedes its genre. If I could give this all the stars and hearts and flowers, I would. Because it was that good. I was impressed by Take the Long Way Home, but The Grand Ballast exceeded my expectations in every way. Hopefully, she'll be recognized for this achievement in a more tangible way than my gushing, but I do want to thank you, J.A., for writing this.

A review copy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

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