Geoffrey sends Jack a letter containing a story he wrote about an American imprisoned in Italy for murdering a prostitute. Jack thinks the story is amazing, and sends his brother a story of his own back. Geoffrey’s story is so good that Jack considers submitting it as his own in English class, but doesn’t, knowing he’d “never get away with it.”
Jack is pleased to see that storytelling as a method of escapism is something that even students at Princeton engage in—and more than that, something that can be turned into art.
Geoffrey writes back expressing admiration for Jack’s story and filling him in on his life at Princeton; it is his last year of college, and he is planning to travel to Europe after graduation and work on a novel. Geoffrey also updates Jack on their father, who has separated from his wife and moved to California. Geoffrey wants to see Jack, and Jack feels the same—he is elated to have rekindled his relationship with his brother.
The renewed communication with Geoffrey offers Jack an outlet, however small, for his own fantasies, and for the idea that someone who loves him will see him in a light other than the one in which the overbearing and cruel Dwight sees him.
One afternoon, while Pearl and Jack are in the kitchen eating hot dogs, Dwight comes into the room and notices a jar of mustard in the garbage. He fishes it out and demands to know who threw it away. Jack says that he did, because it was empty. Dwight shoves the bottle in Jack’s face and remarks that it’s not empty. Pearl says she, too, thinks the bottle looks empty, but Dwight doesn’t listen to her. He smashes the jar against Jack’s face, and at last, Jack relents, saying that the bottle doesn’t look empty. As punishment, Dwight makes Jack scrape every last but of mustard out of the jar. Once Jack is done, Dwight asks him if the jar was really empty; looking at the little smudge of condiment on his place, Jack says that it was, and Dwight leans over and smacks him in the face.
This scene demonstrates just how violently Dwight hates Jack. He accuses him of being wasteful, but when Pearl defends Jack, he barely pays his own daughter any mind—he is only focused on systematically and cruelly breaking Jack down and beating all the hope and individuality out of him. Dwight desires control above all else, and doesn’t care how far he has to go to get it.
Jack leaves the house and wanders around the village. He gets himself a soda and then decides to call his brother. He goes into a phone booth and has the operator connect him to Geoffrey at Princeton, but once Geoffrey picks up, Jack can barely speak. He at last manages to squeak out that Dwight been hitting and abusing him for years. Geoffrey is astonished and upset, and insists that Jack must get out.
Not knowing where else to turn—since his mother and his siblings either don’t see or can’t stop the abuse happening at Dwight’s hands—Jack calls up his brother to beg for a solution.
After asking a little bit about Jack’s schooling—and hearing Jack’s exaggerated brags about his academic and athletic success—Geoffrey suggests Jack apply to his old prep school, Choate, and a handful of other prestigious boarding schools. Geoffrey promises to call their father and discuss it with him—he assures Jack that they’ll get him out of Chinook “one way or the other.”
Geoffrey, in this passage, ignites a new fantasy of escapism for his younger brother—in suggesting that Jack flee to a private school, he will remake his younger brother’s relationship both to his education and his identity.
It’s not just a tough time for Jack—Rosemary, too, is also suffering at Dwight’s hands. Having returned from a fun jaunt campaigning for John F. Kennedy, she is stuck waiting tables at the cookhouse, and has been overcome with boredom and fatigue. She had told a man on the campaign trail that she wanted out of Chinook—Dwight somehow found out about this exchange, and recently pulled a knife on Rosemary, threatening to find and kill her if she ever ran away.
Even though Rosemary and Jack are both suffering at Dwight’s hands, they are doing so in isolation from one another—unable or unwilling to see the truth of what the other is being forced to endure.
Jack sends off for application forms from several prestigious schools recommended by Geoffrey, but when they arrive, he finds himself paralyzed by all that they demand. He knows he is not the boy he has led his brother to believe he is—and because the schools all require letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, and counselors, plus information on Athletic Achievements, Languages, and Community Service, Jack knows that he’ll never be admitted. He lies and tells his mother that he has sent the forms off—he tells himself that he is being “realistic,” but is filled with bitterness and a feeling of entrapment.
Jack has a very high opinion of himself, knowing—in spite of Dwight’s attempts to minimize and erase him—that he is smart, canny, and capable. His miserable performance in school, though, comes back to bite him now. He cannot convince an admissions committee that he is worthy of a place at their school when he doesn’t have the records to prove the kind of person he truly knows himself to be on the inside.
One night, Jack’s father, Mr. Wolff, calls the house. He assures Jack that he’ll get into whatever school he applies to, and will be able to have his pick of the litter. He tells Jack that as soon as school is out for the summer, he should come down to La Jolla to spend the summer with him and Geoffrey. Jack’s father confides in him that he wants for Rosemary to come, too, so that they can all be a family again. Before hanging up, he urges Jack to switch his name back to Tobias before starting at prep school. After the phone call, Jack tells his mother about La Jolla—she seems reluctant but secretly excited at the idea of spending a summer with her ex-husband.
Just as things in Chinook reach their nadir, or lowest possible point, for both Jack and Rosemary, it begins to seem as if there is a way of escaping—and reuniting with the family they once knew.
Arthur Gayle hates shop and has managed to negotiate his way out of the class by agreeing to work in the school office. Jack asks Arthur to help him out with his applications, which he has decided to finish after all, by stealing some supplies from the office. At first, Arthur refuses, but several days later wordlessly drops a manila envelope full of blank school letterhead, blank transcript forms, and a stack of official envelops at Jack’s seat during lunch. Over the next several nights, Jack writes himself fake letters of recommendation and fills out falsified transcripts.
Though Arthur and Jack have had their struggles, Arthur proves himself a true friend—and, still, in spite of it all, a willing participant in Jack’s wildest fantasies. Arthur’s actions on Jack’s behalf give Jack a renewed faith in his ability to escape Chinook after all, and he excitedly sets to work.
The letters Jack writes about himself reflect the truth of the way he thinks about himself; he does not exaggerate to the point of parody, but writes plainly about himself as a “gifted, upright boy” who has outgrown the resources Concrete can offer and is ready to pursue his education more seriously. He writes without hyperbole, and, in composing the letters, at last sees himself in the “splendid phantom” he has created.
Jack is careful not to exaggerate, as he did in his childhood letters to Alice and Annette. He paints a picture of himself as he would like to be, without too much embellishment, and through this act of kindness towards himself, finally sees himself in a light that’s both generous and realistic.