A Review of Karl Geary’s Juno Loves Legs

When family lies at the root of misfortune, resilience can be awfully hard to come by. This holds doubly true for teenagers on the depressed outskirts of 1980s Dublin. And it is triply true when laced with plain old bad luck. In Karl Geary’s Juno Loves Legs, a newly released novel from Catapult Books, the nuclear household is a cruel beast.

Geary is a Dublin-born actor-turned-novelist who already accomplished a “pitch-perfect” (The Guardian) hometown depiction in his 2017 debut Montpelier Parade. In Juno Loves Legs, he’s back for more, painting Ireland in searing colors despite having spent much of his adulthood in New York and Scotland. The vehicle for Geary’s return is Juno, a strong-willed survivalist with violent tendencies and a writer’s eye for detail. Floundering beneath her stern Mam and alcoholic Da — not to mention the far more injurious “Father” at her Catholic school — Juno spends much of this novel bouncing between a rock and a hard place:

“Father hit me,” she tells her mother.

“What did he hit you for?”

“Nothing,” explains Juno, “he just did.”

“Not Father,” says Mam, “not without good reason, that poor man, a man of the cloth.”

“No. Not poor Father!” screams Juno. “Not poor bastarding Father! Poor me, Mam, poor me!”

Poor Juno, indeed. This “school” (given what we know of the institution, quotes feel appropriate) lies somewhere on the spectrum of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, dispensing brutality and fear in place of education. It’s here that Juno meets fellow miscreant Seán, aka Legs, a lanky creative who latches onto Juno for as long as their impoverished upbringings will allow.

“That what you sleep on?” Juno asks upon visiting Legs’s home and seeing that he doesn’t own a mattress. “Bit hard,” she says, “that bed, no?”

“Get used to it,” he replies matter-of-factly.

Victimized by family, fortune, and especially Father, these two characters have erected understandable barriers to emotional dependence. Geary does an excellent job establishing Dublin as a sprawling, erratically industrialized empathy drain, a place where even the dimmest spark deserves celebration. Thanks to these bleak environs, and also the age range of the protagonists, Geary’s second novel will no doubt draw comparisons to Douglas Stuart’s masterful Shuggie Bain; Stuart’s words even appear in a blurb on the American edition.

However, digging beneath the destitute scenery and monochrome cover photographs, it’s evident that these are in fact quite different books. While Stuart’s omniscient third-person takes on Scotland at large, Geary’s minimalist, colloquial first-person aims directly at the heart of Juno: her hopes, her fears, her immense alienation.

Showing up for a job interview wearing a thrifted outfit, she notes, “I lit a smoke and pulled at the hem of my skirt but it was no use and I wondered if I’d ever wear a dress that a single generation had not perished in.” This sense of inferiority persists throughout the interview. “And here was proof then of what I think I’d always suspected,” she muses, “the world was another, a vast other, in which I’d occupied a narrow and separate part. Agnes was the first person I’d ever met who had been to college.”

If Stuart’s success lies in scope, Geary’s crowning achievement is his protagonist’s journey. Juno’s path forward lies in self-certainty and trust. In spite of all the hate and all the hurt, she grows by opening herself to love. And what she loves, obviously, is Legs, romantically at first and then platonically after she discovers his affection for men. (“Does anyone else know?” “Everyone, but everyone knows.” “Well, I fucking didn’t…”)

The two of them spend the book’s nadir in respective freefall, separated from each other and therefore the lifeline of friendship. Perhaps I’m drawn to hardship (“For fans of A Little Life,” chirps the Catapult marketing team), but I found these low points the most mesmerizing bit of Geary’s work.

“There’s nothing about us that’s good,” a drunken Juno says to her drunken father. “We’re just nothing.” It’s the kind of statement a better parent—in fact, almost any parent—would disavow. But Juno’s support network isn’t her parents. It’s Legs.

I walked this morning and walked and walked. And stamped and stamped and still I could hardly feel my feet on the path. I’m neither here nor there,” Juno confesses to her pal in a miserable letter. “Isn’t that a terrible thought? When some are pretending to care and don’t, and others pretending not to care and do. Caring is the worst, Legs, I hate you for that.”

In Geary’s defiant second novel, these small victories are victories nonetheless.


Eric Olson

Eric Olson is a novelist, essayist, and journalist based in Seattle, Washington. You can learn more about his work at ericolsonwriting.com.

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