‘Good Behavior’ proves a gripping first novel



“Good Behavior: A Memoir,” by Nathan L. Henry (Bloomsbury, $16.99); 260 pages.

In his acknowledgements, Nathan L. Henry calls his memoir a “polished piece of damn-near-perfect beauty.”

There’s a good bit of author’s pride in that statement, but he’s basically right. “Good Behavior” is a rough diamond, polished to highlight the fascinating flaws in its main character.

The book covers the first 17 years of Henry’s life, as he evolves into a thug and winds up doing a year in juvenile prison for armed robbery.

Henry uses simple and straightforward prose to capture his journey into maturity, erring on the side of brevity in every chapter and sentence.

With street-corner directness and stunning clarity, the author — now in his early 30s and living in Columbus — exposes his thought process at the time. He bravely reveals what was going on in his head, even if it means embarrassing himself (or his former self).

Henry was shaped by his father — a man ruled by insecurities — in a dead-end Indiana town. He blames his waywardness on him, but an unrecognized sense of being trapped is likely the real cause.

The author’s vague teenage anxiety turns into highly-focused anger, and he embraces the anti-establishment.

But what’s most remarkable is how he gets beyond it. In a jailhouse epiphany, his mind blossoms. In an instant — like being born anew — he suddenly “gets it.”

On a subconscious level, the teenage Henry knew there was more to the world — culture, beauty — and he wanted it. But nobody ever showed him how to find it.

He becomes the rare inmate who emerges from prison much better than when he went in. With a library full of books and all day to read them, Henry’s mind finally opens.

The chapters of “Good Behavior” alternate between Henry’s life before jail and his time in the slammer.

Both narratives simultaneously build toward two crescendos: the high school years culminating in the robbery, and the prison stint in his release.

Although “Good Behavior” is Henry’s first novel, it is thoroughly tight and gripping. It bears the immediacy of a sullen young tough, all extraneous thoughts suppressed.

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