Nathan Johnson’s The Rebel is the compelling tale of a successful businessman who was once a rebel. Protagonist John Cooper reflects on his childhood and adolescence, born into a family in which his mother is his only ally, growing up in a household in which his guilt is always assumed and his older brother is always considered right.
John Cooper is “trying to make the best of a bad situation” as a misunderstood child, becoming an accidental rebel, punished for defending his friend in a fight and becoming friends with Butch Jones, a gang ringleader, in order to avoid going home. The more he is around Butch, the more trouble in which eleven year old John becomes involved, with escapades that range from stealing to smoking and drugs. As the gang progressively becomes more violent and encounters trouble with the law, his father, whose problems are becoming progressively more serious, enrolls him in a juvenile detention center to attempt to straighten him out.
The tense relationship between John and his father culminates in his father’s attempt to murder him, consumed by hate and rage, powerfully underscored by Johnson’s dialogue; “’I’ve always hated you. You’re going to realize I am your father. I brought you into this world and damn, I’m taking you out!’” The story follows Cooper as he gets older, starts a relationship, struggles to break the cycle of abuse, and eventually discovers the true meaning of being a rebel.
Johnson fuses the play-like dialogue with prose explanations, giving the reader various media for understanding the story and gaining deeper insight into the life and mind of John Cooper. Johnson’s portrayal of Cooper’s life, troubled youth, and strained relationship with his father is heartrending, providing readers with a unique perspective on what drives young people to become rebels and join gangs.