The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper

 

Harper Perennial calls The Marbled Swarm, Dennis Cooper’s “most haunting work to date,” and it is impossible to disagree. Although this latest from Cooper is more psychological and subtle, in many aspects, than most of his other works, it is perhaps because of those reasons that it is even more effective. The book is disturbing, as is typical from Cooper. The narrator, a deeply troubled young man with fantasies of incest on the brain, is consumed by homicidal and cannibalistic tendencies. The layers of his mind are just as twisted, concealed, and misleading as the secret passageways and hidden rooms that encompass his father’s voyeuristic mansion. The book, at its core, is a mystery story, which parallels the physical reality with the narrator’s subconscious, and what the reader finds in both places is darkly troubling.   

A narrator who refuses to identify as gay, but whose sexual perversions include raping and killing boys (particularly of the “Emo” type), then eating them; a father who spies on his sons, and who slowly and subtly persuades them to become sexually infatuated with each other; a boy who lies about being raped by his father to his brother, and by his brother to his father, with the hope that one of them will rape him; men who kidnap boys, alter them through plastic and bone surgery so they will look like their fantasy type, then sell them for sexual favors to men with twisted desires. These are just some of the characters in The Marbled Swarm. Individually, each is sick, twisted, and alarming in his own right; together, they create a world of psychological distrubia. The narrator and main character is the most interesting of the bunch, perhaps because the reader witnesses some of his secrets unfold chapter-by-chapter. His younger brother and father are also fascinating, in a “this car crash makes me want to vomit but I can’t turn my head” kind of way. Ultimately, the group serves to progress the story’s purpose, which is a commentary on language and communication, as well as Cooper’s modus operandi – exposing the terrible side of humanity and the evil side of desire. 

Cooper’s writing style is nearly unmatched; he is a type of writer that has been unknown in American Literature since William Burroughs. Although his themes are twisted and hard to stomach for most, his ability as a writer are laudable to say the least. His mastery of language, his ability to advance a plot seamlessly, and the sickeningly playful way he messes with his readers minds are impossible to overlook, despite how unsavory the subject matter. In The Marbled Swarm, Cooper has accomplished all that his previous works attempted, which is saying much, because his previous works were groundbreaking in their own right. In retrospect, though, it is clear to see that Cooper has been developing over time, getting better and better; and this latest, his masterpiece, is proof of how hard he has been working to perfect his craft. 

After admiring Cooper’s work for nearly a decade, I can say that, though I have loved and been fascinated by almost every book, poem, and essay the man has ever written, this is the book all previous works were helping to develop. It is, by far, Cooper’s most complex piece to date, and also his finest in craft, in theory, and in delivery. The fluid prose, disturbing subject matter, and psychological warfare (within the story and between narrator and reader) make this book a demonstrable work of genius. Had this been just a story about a disturbed young man who had sexual attractions for his brother and father, and who liked to eat human flesh, the book would have been sick, sad, and confusing; however, though that is technically what happens in the book, it is not what the book is about. This is a story about desire and depression; it is a story about cravings and theatrics;  it is a story about the pleasure of playing “the witness” in horrifying situations and, most importantly, it is a story about story-telling. 

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

 

 

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Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein

The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay is an interesting retelling of the young life of Merlin’s arch-nemesis, Morgana. The story takes place in the late 400s; the Romans have fallen and Christianity is on the rise, reaching the superstitious, pagan-rich lands of Britain and Ireland. Young Anna, whose father is a powerful governor father and whose mother is the beautiful Ygraine, a timid witch, is forced to flee Britania from the wrath of Uter Pendgragon, who kills Anna’s father (with the help of the Enchanter) to be with and have a child by Ygraine. At sea, Anna is reborn as Morgan, and it is in Ireland that she is both enslaved and freed. She falls in love with an Irish warrior, uses her magical abilities and military background to help him rise to greatness, before leaving Ireland to return home and take vengeance upon Uter Pendgragon. Unfortunately, not everything goes according to plan, and Morgan, though victorious, will ultimately meet another great and legendary new leader instead.

The majority of the story is spent with its main character, Morgan. Fortunately, Epstein has drawn her to be rather interesting. There are inklings of Morgan’s adult personality, with which many familiar with Arthurian legend will be familiar, and Epstein allows these traits to manifest gradually and with believable impetus. Morgan’s youth and rise to power and self-discovery is satisfying, though more time spent on the magic itself (and understanding it/helping the readers to understand it) would have improved the relationship between reader and Morgan’s journey. The minor characters, too, are interesting – though many (like Uter) do not get as much page-time as one might expect. We get the sense, for instance, that Uter was a bad, power-hungry man, but there is only one hint as to why, and it comes near the very end. Still, others, like the various Irish clans, the lover-interest Conall, and the Christian colony (Salvatus, Befind, and Luan, in particular) are well-developed so as to supplement and progress Morgan’s story.

The story flows well because it is broken into logical segments and because the language and prose are conducive to the age range and maturity level of the story. Once into the story, it easy to become engrossed in it, wanting to know what will happen next. It took this reader, for example, just over two days to read the entire 300-page book. One criticism, however, is the relatively simple sentence structure. For middle grade readers this might be fine, but the story is more advanced than that, so the structure should be as well. At certain points, the short sentences certainly serves the purpose of creating a sense of action, as is true in general; however, much of the prose is made up of relatively short, simple sentences, when more complexity in the structure could have added substance, positive complication, and engagement.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is not just that it is about Morgan Le Fay, which is a fascinating subject; in fact, one of the most interesting elements was the conflict between the budding Christian culture and the well-established but threatened pagan religions. Added with the various nationalities – the British, the Irish, the Saxons, and (in some relative respect) the Romans- the book becomes a fascinating culture study. It also tackles aspects of family, revenge, and forgiveness. This is certainly an appealing and creative re-imagining of the young life of Morgana, and one can only hope that it will be the first book in a series that will expand further on her life and times. The book’s website also contains some great background and historical information on Morgan and this era, which is a great benefit to readers who have a deeper interest.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

 

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Jack is fifteen. He lives with his parents and three siblings, one older sister (Julie), a younger sister (Sue) and younger brother (Tom). The family seems relatively typical, at first, but the children all turn out to have their bizarre, disturbing quirks, which manifest themselves after the unexpected death of their father and slow, sickly death of their mother just two months later. The kids, worried about being separated from one another and taken from their home, commit an almost unfathomable act. They live together with this secret, in demented fashion, until Julie’s slighted boyfriend, Derek, discovers the truth and puts it all to an end. The Cement Garden is comparable only to V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic but, since these kids act the way they do almost naturally, and certainly willingly, the story is even more perverse and troubling than the horror that Andrews created in her own thriller.

For a short book, the characters were very well written. Each of the children have distinct personalities and identifiable traits. Jack is moody, self-absorbed, and physically (and psychologically) dirty. Sue is quiet, apathetic, and submissive; she is the “documenter” of the bunch, watching everything happen and writing it all down in her journal. Sue is the most observant and understands better than anyone what each of her siblings is like, and what is happening to them all. Tom is a very disturbed young boy, lost without guidance. He loves to dress as a girl (nothing inherently wrong with this, in my opinion, except for the twisted connection it holds to his eldest sister Julie and their mother). Tom enjoys being treated like a baby, nursed and coddled. Julie, the eldest, is a power-crazed beauty. She is seriously disturbed and encourages her brother Jack’s unhealthy infatuation with her, toward a place that should never be reached. Derek, the boyfriend, and the kids’ parents, though minor characters, are also distinguished with independent traits, mostly weaknesses. For example, even when Derek finally takes a stand, it is only because he feels angry and jealous of Julie and Jack’s relationship, not because he means to do the right thing for the sake of it being right.

To me, the story was highly disturbing. It will be hard for many to get through it; fortunately, I have a lot of experience with dark, demented, and disturbing literature (being a Dennis Cooper scholar and William S. Burroughs fanatic). Still, child perversity and incest are not comfortable issues and, had McEwan not been a powerful and masterful story-teller, I probably would have given up on this book. The language is well crafted, though, and the prose flows evenly and smoothly. The story too, is an important one, if hard to witness. Things like this do happen in the real world, though nobody ever writes about it or cares to think of it. So, “thanks” to McEwan’s writing ability (I suppose I should be grateful?), I was able to stay engaged enough to manage through to the end. It was certainly a wild ride – I am just glad I finished it long before bed-time.

The book certainly touches on the darker aspects of family and isolated relationships. It deals with child psychology, aberrant sexuality, fear, and immaturity. What does a group of children do, after all, when their parents die suddenly – with no guidance, no extended family to reach out to, and no nearby neighbors to look toward for support? The children were left an inheritance of sorts, which had been explained to the two eldest in advance so, in their minds, they were surviving in a way their mother had intended, on their own and together. But this isolation creates rather immoral, dangerous situations and one must believe that none of these children will ever develop into healthy adulthood. Is it hard to read? Yes, it is even hard to imagine; but, as I mention above, I believe these types of scenarios do exist, only to be heard of in brief 30-second snippets on the news. It is interesting, if rather gross, to witness these relationships in action, as it were, and to get a glimpse at the “how” and “why” of such situations.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0

 

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

Every Day by David Levithan

13262783Can you imagine yourself not as a physical being, but as an ethereal entity – a formless consciousness that floats through life from day-to-day, always looking like someone different but always knowing yourself to be the same?

Every day since birth, A wakes up in a different body. Sometimes he wakes up as a boy, sometimes she wakes up as a girl. A has no physical or biological sex, instead needing to adapt to the sex of the host body where s/he resides any particular day. S/he is capable of accessing the memories of the host bodies and can also allow (or not) that host to remember what A experiences on the day of his visit, though s/he usually chooses to block these memories so that the host will not feel as if they have been possessed or invaded. Each night, when A falls asleep in one body, s/he knows that s/he will wake up in the morning as someone entirely different.

A does have a personality, consciousness, and sense of self that is entirely individual, though s/he has no physical form, and A carries this individuality into each new day and every new body. This is the story of 40 days in the life of A – perhaps the most important 40 days that s/he will ever experience. S/he learns that s/he is perhaps not alone in this very unique experience – there may be others out there who are doomed (or blessed?) to exist only in others’ bodies. A also falls in love, for the second time, and must learn how to make a relationship work under such extraordinary circumstances or s/he must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice, for someone else’s happiness.

The two main characters are A and Rhiannon, 16 year olds who are on their own paths to self-discovery and whose encounter with each other will set the trajectories of their lives in new directions. Through A, we also witness, on the surface, the lives of dozens of other teenagers: boys and girls; popular kids and nerds; athletic kids and beautiful ones; kids who are blind, fat, depressed, alcoholic, addicts, or suffering from ADHD. We also get glimpses of their families and friends, though their stories are always in the background as A navigates their lives for one day, in pursuit of his own. The only other recurring characters include two of A’s former hosts, Justin (Rhiannon’s boyfriend and the way A comes to meet her – awkward!) and Nathan, whom A has left, perhaps purposely, with lingering feelings of his “possession” and who ultimately introduces him to Reverend Poole, the man who will change A’s perspective forever. Levithan’s primary characters are interesting individuals, as are the host bodies, all of whom are believable teenagers with varied personalities and circumstances. Viewing the characters through A, who essentially is each of them (including Rhiannon) at one point or another, creates a unique experience for the reader.

journal-011-300x200The structure of the book, too, is interesting, though not entirely unique. It is, in a way, a journal-format. Each small chapter is one day in the life of A and, indeed, the chapter titles correspond to the chronological day (such as Day 6014) in A’s life. This structure, while not entirely original, is absolutely appropriate for the type of story being told and is suitable to A’s narrative style. Levithan’s writing style, too, his prose and language, are appropriate to the age and maturity level of the narrator and also match the oftentimes didactic nature of the story. It is lofty but grounded, well-paced but reflective.

One criticism of the book is that it is at times preachy. This point is well-taken and I do agree with those who find certain elements, such as the narrative arguments for social and sexual equality, not just pointed, but sometimes heavy-handed. Levithan is an issue writer, though, and as another reviewer has aptly mentioned, issue writers are interested in making their point and, in fact, making points is necessary to their purpose. The fact that I agreed with most of the points Levithan was making (gender equality, love of the person not of the sex, etc.), made the story more interesting for me, but I can certainly see how readers who struggle or disagree with such sentiments might find the “lecture” portions of the narrative a bit jarring.

My primary point of contention comes from a particularly disturbing element of the story, which is, I believe, both indicative of the narrator’s personality but also, though I am usually reluctant to make these arguments, of the writer’s bias. Throughout the book, the narrator makes a point of being highly understanding and empathetic. Since s/he has spent his (I will stick with gendered-male pronoun from here on out, as that is ultimately how I perceived the narrator) life living inside of different bodies, it is understandable that he would be a more enlightened individual. He has been male and female, blind, deformed, ugly, and everything in-between. In each case, he makes the argument for empathy and compassion – that we should love ourselves and each other as we are and that each of us suffers from our own demons which might affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we interact with the world. A is able to build his relationship with Rhiannon, another equally enlightened young woman, whether he be in the body of a beautiful black girl, a beefy metal head, or a stringy track jock. The point is well-taken: be yourself, try to show others what is on the inside, and learn to accept others for who they truly are, not just for what they look like.

fat-thinBut then we get near the end of the book and A wakes up in the body of an obese boy. The body weighs 300 pounds and suddenly the tone changes dramatically, for the worse. This chapter, and the next one, is devoted largely not to acceptance or understanding, but to feelings of disgust and anger. It is this body, and only this one, that A is ashamed to show Rhiannon. It is this body that A blames for what it is. Unlike the addicts or depressed teenagers, whom A tries to empathize with and thereby get the reader to think more deeply about, this fat kid gets nothing but criticism – A even tries to “access” the reasons why he might be so fat, but finds only laziness as the cause. Then, after deciding to meet with Rhiannon anyway, it is after this particular meeting that Rhiannon concludes she can no longer engage in this kind of relationship, because she cannot build a relationship with someone who never looks the same. Rhiannon struggles with this all along, but with all of the other bodies, male and female, tall and short, pimpled, hairy, or beautiful, Rhiannon accepts the body. Until the fat, sweaty boy shows up and everything changes. It would be easy to say that this is just a teenage insecurity – that the author is trying to make a statement about the judgmental nature of people and youths; however, throughout the book, both A and Rhiannon, as I have already mentioned, are incredibly enlightened and accepting of all people and situations. Why, then, is this one person so different – so disgusting? Unfortunately, I feel it is a deeper bias coming from the author. He makes a point of making points in this book, as in all of his books. It would be naïve and unfair to think, then, that this, too, is anything other than his making a point: do not be fat. Fat comes from being lazy. There are no psychological or emotional reasons for obesity, it just means you eat too much and do too little. It is outrageous. Not since reading Atlas Shrugged have I been so angered by a particular element of a particular book and it saddens me that this perspective comes from Levithan who is, otherwise, a very positive, compassionate writer.

Ultimately, though, I did love this book. I found the premise incredibly interesting and thought the social/gender politics were expressed in a unique way. The story moves at a great pace, the characters and their stories are fascinating and believable. There is a fantasy element to the story which comes into play late in the book, when Reverend Poole and A finally meet, but the narrative is still grounded firmly in reality. Had it not been for the one bizarrely glaring prejudice mentioned in the paragraph above, I could have easily found this to be a perfect read. As it is, I found it, still, to be a wonderful one. Highly recommended.

Notable Quotes:

“Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” (56).

“You shouldn’t have to venture deep down in order to get to love” (72).

“Tomorrow . . . a little less than a promise, and a little more than a chance” (97).

“I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation” (223).

“Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other” (320).

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith

Plot/Story:

Sixteen-year-old Jonah and his fourteen-year-old brother Simon are abandoned by their mother, left in their house without food, running water, or electricity. Their eldest brother is serving in Vietnam, with plans to return home soon, but they haven’t heard from him in months. The brothers soon realize that they have little chance of surviving on their own; so, with ten dollars and some spare clothes, they leave their New Mexico home and head west towards Yuma, Arizona, where their father is incarcerated and soon to be released. Not too far into their journey, the horse they have been riding on dies, so they are forced to make the rest of the journey on foot. At least, that’s what they should have done. Instead, brash Simon, never one to heed his older brother’s warnings, hails down a passing car which is being driven by an unlikely and unsavory pair, a sociopathic man and a pregnant teenage girl. At first glance, the man and the beautiful young girl seem like a couple of unlikely heroes. The boys soon realize, though, that their would-be hero is not what he appears. He has buckets of cash littering the trunk of his car. There’s a stolen Don Quixote statue in the backseat. Oh, and he also has a gun. But he’s not the only one packing heat. The question is: who will use his gun first, and why?


Characterization:

There are some ups and downs with characterization and character development. Some of the characters are well-developed and complex, particularly Mitch, the sociopath, and Matt, the eldest brother. The small glimpses into Mitch’s darker persona are spaced well and provide tantalizing precursors to the larger melt-down, which readers will anticipate but not be disappointed by when it finally arrives. Witnessing the boys’ elder brother’s descent into madness, caused by the horrors he is exposed to in Vietnam, is also intriguing; it adds complexity and character to the story’s sub-plot. I found Jonah, Simon, and Lilly less interesting, though they were the characters that received the most page time. Jonah’s deep, almost paralyzing infatuation with the girl comes about so quickly and without much explanation, making it difficult to believe (aside from a “teenage hormone” perspective). Simon’s anger toward his older brother is also near-immediately apparent, but it is there with little explanation or cause (Jonah seems like a decent guy and hasn’t done anything, that we know of, to make Simon mad at him). There’s the underlying “sibling rivalry” theme which works, of course, but the level of animosity the brothers have toward each other, particularly Simon toward Jonah, doesn’t really fit a “that’s what brothers do” kind of equation. We learn, later in the story, that there has always been conflict but developing that sooner, rather than forcing it to be assumed, could have helped the overall narrative. Still, the brothers’ relationship is engaging, tense and passionate, and ultimately resolved.       


Prose/Style:

The book is formatted as a third-person omniscient narration, but not really. It’s essentially from Jonah’s perspective, written after he has gained facts about events which he could not have witnessed in person, as well as narrating those events which he did witness first-hand. So, the feel of the narration is third-person omniscient because there is little question that everything written down has actually happened but, in actuality, the narration is limited. Because the portions of the novel pertaining to Matt, who is not physically present in the story, are written in epistolary form, Smith is able to get away with this somewhat; however, for the portions witnessed by Simon, Mitch or other characters, one does need to suspend analysis a bit and just let the story flow in order to enjoy it. Chapters are often headed with a character’s name, such as “Simon,” which helps the reader follow-along with who is saying what, when (although, ultimately, the entire story is Jonah’s map/journal).  Aside from the somewhat strange structure, I definitely enjoyed the language and the prose – both of which were appropriate to the age level and well-suited to the setting of the story and its tone. The pace is deliciously suspenseful, building slowly but with an almost liquid fluidity, like a syrupy trail winding its way through the desert: sticky, sweet, rich, and satisfying.      


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

One of the strangest things about the book is that it is difficult to completely like or completely hate any one of its characters (and this, incidentally, is one of the best things writers can do for their stories, in my opinion). There are complexities of personality – inner demons and better angels- associated with each of the characters, and it is up to the reader to practice compassion and understanding when dealing with them, particularly with the protagonist(s). Jonah, the narrator and main character, is not a typical hero. Mitch, the antagonist, is vile but also quite sad. Lilly is tragically desperate, seeking shelter wherever she can find it, with little concern for what it costs her. Simon is angry, tired of being treated like a child but not wholly prepared for the adult world he’s been thrust into, head-first. The book is about family and survival, it is about making difficult choices, sometimes between the lesser of two evils, and oftentimes it is about finding out how to recover after having made the wrong choices.   


Excerpt:

I pictured the first time we saw the girl, breezing past us in that Lincoln, blond hair whirling around her, her glasses tipped down, her smile, the stroke of her fingers. The teasing.

Simon tumbled the meteorite around in the sweat of his hand. I wondered what it would be like to look down at the earth, to fall, to burn brilliantly in the air like the image of the girl who passed by, kicking back dust like cosmic ash, and could she see that, now; was she up there above us?

I wondered.

We closed our eyes.