La Salle native and author James Janko will discuss his most recent book, “What We Don’t Talk About,” at noon Wednesday, December 7, 2022, in CTC124-125 at Illinois Valley Community College. The event in the Ralph Scriba Conference Center is free and open to the public.
Janko is the author of two award-winning novels, “Buffalo Boy and Geronimo” and “The Clubhouse Thief.” His short stories have been published in The Sun, Massachusetts Review, and Eureka Literary Magazine, among others. His story, “Fallujah in a Mirror,” won the Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award and was published by The Iowa Review. “What We Don’t Talk About” will be published in late November by the University of Wisconsin Press.
The novel is set in fictional Orville, Ill., a bucolic, charming, and almost Norman Rockwellesque — if you’re white. But like many midwestern cities in the 1960s, it is a “sundown” town — a place where Black Americans are prohibited from entering or remaining after dark.
The town’s most adventurous woman, Cassie Zeul, is an outcast because she has no husband and takes an occasional lover. Her son, Gus, guided by Sister Damien, aspires to be a priest, but he is increasingly overwhelmed by his infatuation with Pat Lemkey — who is herself drawn to Jenny Biel, considered by many to be the most beautiful girl in town.
Gus’s best friend, Fenza Ryzchik Jr., a somewhat notorious bully desperate for his father’s attention, hates “colored people,” doesn’t think he knows any, and is certain he can convince Jenny to marry him one day — without realizing that her devout mother has been passing for white her entire life.
Events come to a head when a visiting nun from the South brings an African American friend with her to Midnight Mass one Christmas Eve.
The dreams and desires of these characters collide and intersect as they navigate life and coming of age in the rural Midwest.
In Janko’s masterful hands, the darkness — of prejudice, privilege, and power — that they don’t even recognize threatens to overwhelm their lives and their plans for the future. The novel forces us, as well as its characters, to acknowledge the cost of hiding our true selves, and of judging others based on the color of their skin or the longing of their hearts.