A gritty exploration of the struggles of everyday Americans and the search for happiness.
Jocko Willink is a man who needs no introduction. Retired Navy Seal, #1 New York Times bestselling author, entrepreneur, and podcasting giant, Willink can ostensibly do it all, and his latest book is evidence of that.
Few authors have the successful writing career Willink has, let alone across multiple genres. Jocko released his best-selling first book Extreme Ownership in 2015, making his literary mark on the leadership and self-help industry, selling over 500,000 copies worldwide. He has published several other popular books on leadership, and personal development, including Discipline Equals Freedom, The Dichotomy of Leadership, and Leadership Strategy and Tactics. In 2018 Willink made a risky but wildly successful maneuver into the world of children’s books with the release of Way of the Warrior Kid which would be the first in a series of fiction novels for children focused on empowering kids through discipline and self-respect. With the release of his latest novel Final Spin, Willink has successfully moved into a new literary genre once again.
Final Spin is Jocko’s foray into the world of adult fiction, and he does not miss the mark. Part poem, part prose, part transcript, Final Spin is a uniquely composed novel. No superfluous details. No unnecessary characters. It is written in short, burst-fire segments that move fast and hit hard. It is pure efficiency in Willink’s trademark military style.
The book follows the story of 23-year-old Johnny, who is stuck working a dead-end job as a stock boy for a local big-box retailer. Johnny is trying desperately to find purpose in his mediocre life as he cares for his mentally challenged and idiosyncratic older brother Arty who has a peculiar obsession with doing laundry. Arty has been working at a local laundromat for years which is the perfect outlet for his passion for clean clothes. As Johnny says, “when he is there, he is the happiest motherfucker in the world.” When the laundromat Arty works at is set to be sold, Johnny decides to put everything on the line to preserve his brother’s happiness. Just like the washing machines Arty adores so much, Johnny’s life is going around and around in circles getting nowhere fast, and this is his last chance, one “final spin” at happiness for himself. He needs $40,000 to buy the business to give to Arty, and to come up with the money, he and his co-worker George Martinez devise a plan to rob the store, drop off the cash with the owner of the laundromat, and take off to the southern border to escape with the rest of the money. Although they are successful in robbing the store and securing the funds, their getaway plan falls through almost immediately and Johnny and George end up with the police on their tails. Johnny is forced to leave Arty and his pregnant girlfriend Jessica behind as he tries to salvage what’s left of his future.
Final Spin is a deceptively quick read, but there is a lot this short novel has to offer its readers. One of the critical elements of the story is that it is about ordinary Americans living ordinary lives, who have ordinary problems, and ordinary futures. This is not an overly dramatic novel with fantastic characters. Don’t get me wrong, it is an exciting book, but it is also exceedingly relatable. We all know half a dozen people exactly like the characters in the book, and we can easily see how one of them could make the same choices as Johnny in a last-ditch effort at living the good life. Maybe we’ve even pondered some of those thoughts ourselves.
When reading Final Spin, I was filled with a sense that this exact story (or some close derivative of it) has unfolded thousands of times in the past few decades.
Everyday people. Normal Americans. Hopelessly unhappy.
Working at a dead-end job.
Drinking in a dead-end bar.
Floating through a dead-end life.
The American story. Or at least what it has become. Looking for happiness at the bottom of a bottle wondering if you’ll ever be truly satisfied. This isn’t just Johnny’s story, it is everyone’s story to some extent. Final Spin is gripping because it is real, not because it is spectacular. It may be a work of fiction, but the story is true. The events of the novel happen all the time all over the country. In a way, Johnny is an avatar of all the unsung heroes — everyday people, whose names are forgotten, who make extraordinary sacrifices for the people they care about.
At its core, the book is a commentary on happiness and what it means to live a good and purposeful life. As it says on the back cover of the book, life does not always turn out the way we want. That seems to be the motto of Johnny’s life, and I’m sure some of us can relate. Many people come to the same conclusion as Johnny, that “happiness is never going to happen for me.” All that remained for him was to decide what choices he could make to ensure it does happen for somebody else.
The story contains a motif that is very much consistent with Willink’s previous works — we are responsible for our own lives and happiness. It is not our circumstances that define who we are and what we will be. It is our choices. Johnny realizes this early on in the story:
“I fucked up a lot of things. No one made me cut classes in high school. No one made me quit community college. I did that. You can’t put your shit on someone else. This is where I am right now. I put myself here.”
Whether it is intentional or not, this dialogue between Johnny and Jessica is a nod to Jocko’s first book as Johnny takes extreme ownership of his lot in life. It is all on him, and he recognizes that.
Throughout the book, there is a dichotomy between Johnny and Arty. Arty is perfectly happy and satisfied by the mundane things in life such as a clean load of laundry. Johnny on the other hand is tortured by life’s monotony. Despite living in the same house, the same town, the same life, Arty and Johnny have polar opposite outlooks. This juxtaposition of the two main characters reveals Willink’s brilliance as a storyteller. That contrast between the brothers is ultimately what drives Johnny’s choices. Johnny does not give up everything to obtain some lavish lifestyle for himself. He does it so that Arty can maintain his perfectly ordinary and happy life. Johnny doesn’t want stuff, he wants to feel like his life matters. The money is irrelevant. It’s about doing something important for his brother and making sure his life isn’t a complete waste. It’s a sacrifice, but not just a sacrifice for its own sake. Johnny surely is sacrificing while working his tedious job. Night shift, terribly pay, horrible boss. That is by no means an easy existence. But his sacrifice needs to mean something and that is exactly why he jumps at the opportunity to make a drastic change.
Final Spin also subtly touches on the theme of consumerism and how it can be such a barrier to our happiness. In some ways, the book presents it like a drug, something we take to numb the pain that only makes us miserable. Like the ocean water, we drink to quench our thirst that does nothing but dehydrate us. There is a bit of hypocrisy that occurs on Johnny’s part. While working a shift with George, the two exchange disgust at the consumerism of the patrons of the store where they work. From the inner dialogue of Johnny:
“People can buy anything here. And they do. Consumption in massive quantities to fill their massive bellies and run up their massive credit card debt. People: Flesh-covered robot beings in need of fuel and meaning. They find both here.”
While Johnny understands the emptiness of the consumption habits of the customers at his workplace, he is not immune to them himself. Every night he and George spend hours in a local bar drinking before work, presumably to numb themselves before their shift.
They are miserable.
They try to escape that misery through consumption, but that continuous empty consumption makes them more miserable.
It’s a vicious cycle, much like that of a washing machine (a brilliant allegorical tool utilized by Jocko in multiple layers throughout the story) except instead of cleaning up Johnny’s life it does nothing but make him feel more and more filthy. In comparison, Arty is in many ways the antithesis of a consumerist. Despite living in the same circumstances as Johnny, Arty doesn’t need anything but the ability to do laundry to be truly happy. This quirky obsession isn’t a numbing agent for Arty. It is something that brings him genuine fulfillment, a fulfillment that Johnny can’t help but envy as he thinks: “That is happiness. Arty has it. I might not have it. I might not ever have it. But that is happiness”. In the end, Johnny’s search for happiness helps him realize that for him, happiness is to be found not in a dive bar or a menial stock boy job, but in sacrificing for those he cares about.
That is the main message of the novel. It is designed to get the reader to think about their own lives, the lives of their loved ones, what it means to be truly happy, and how sacrifice plays a role in our search for a meaningful life.
Final Spin shows Jocko’s range as both a writer and storyteller. It is a quick and easy read that is thrilling, moving, and utterly relatable at times. Don’t let Willink’s compressed prose fool you, this novel is packed with depth. He knocks it out of the park once again. As a reader, I hope he continues to explore the world of adult fiction. Final Spin is a truly gripping novel, one that leaves me craving more like this from Jocko.
I don’t think I could give Final Spin any higher praise than to use Jocko’s trademark catchphrase.
The book is….GOOD. Check.