This review originally appeared at Indie Books List, where "Chain Gang Elementary" was chosen as "Book of the Month" for the month of January, 2012.
What can I say about Richard Gray? He’s a flawed, kind, well-meaning man who calls meetings to order with the “rap-tap-tap” of a Duncan yo-yo. As the protagonist in Jonathan Grant’s “Chain Gang Elementary”, he’s pitch perfect. Gray possesses a conflicted social conscience, a sharp tongue, and has the cojones to be an unapologetic, stay at home father.
He’s a Southern male that isn’t a simpleton, a redneck, or a dandy…I mean…Charlestonian.
When Richard is drafted to be head of the Parent Teacher Organization at Malliford Elementary, he is aware that his presidency will face obstacles. The aging Miz Rutherford is at once Principal, non-benevolent dictator, and Nurse Ratched to the children and parents who inhabit Malliford. She’s not fond of Gray’s impudent questions, or the changes he would make in student life.
Rutherford is intent on making her school a “five-star school of excellence”. The only people standing in the way are Richard Gray, agent provocateur Rita Malloy, and the academic pariahs that inhabit the Chantilly Arms apartment complex. Of course, the school isn’t racist for wanting to reassign them to another school. It’s strictly an issue of test scores and property values.
This is where the war begins. This war will be won not through frontal assaults, but from good old-fashioned skulduggery and passive-aggressive behavior. This book is the show “Desperate Housewives” wishes it could be, and has the scathing social satire “Suburgatory” pretends to provide.
Gray’s personal life is hopelessly endangered by his success as PTO President, with his son Nicholas providing an unbiased look at the effects of his professional achievements. Richard’s frosty wife, Anna Lee is alternately unimpressed with, and angry about Richard’s “accomplishments”.
Her emotional indifference creates a situation ripe for extramarital excursions. These aren’t too difficult to initiate when you are a powerful, stay-at-home dad, surrounded by bored housewives. The question Gray finds himself asking is “Will it be worth it?”
The answer is “Yes.”, but only in response to the question “Should I read this book?” Chain Gang Elementary has a massive cast of characters that are all fully developed, with sub-plots that weave in and out of the main storyline gracefully. It’s rare to look at a book and say “This was crafted.” This book combines loving attention to detail, page-turning tension, with a wry humor that stops short of meanness.
This is a long read. A lesser story would make the length of ”Chain Gang” unbearable. As things stand, it’s a satisfying experience, worth far more than the price of admission.
Buy it already.