What makes Jack Gantos tick? It’s a question that haunts every book he writes, from the simplest Rotten Ralph to his own YA autobiography Hole in My Life. It’s a talent to write compelling characters, but what if the most compelling character of them all is the author himself? With each Gantos tome I find myself coming back to this question: Why is Jack Gantos the way he is? To be fair, I suspect the man is asking himself the same question at the same time. How else to explain the Jack Henry books like Jack Adrift that cull from the author’s life? Or the aforementioned autobiography? Or the fact that Dead End in Norvelt, his latest outing, stars a kid named “Jack Gantos” who lives in a town Jack lived in for a time and experiences many of the things Jack experienced. We’re dealing with a book that melds memoir and fiction by turns, managing to drop little tidbits of information that appear to be the seeds of everything from Joey Pigza to The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs. Folks, it’s a weird book. No question about that. It may also be one of the finest he’s produced in years. Just don’t go walking into it with your eyes closed, is all.
1962, Norvelt, PA. It’s a town that owes its existence to Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom it is named) and the residence of one young Jack Gantos. A kid with a perpetually bleeding proboscis, Jack’s looking forward to having an awesome summer. That is, before his mother forces him to help out old Miss Volker write the town’s obituaries. Before he’s grounded for mowing down his mom’s corn (because his dad told him to, and how fair is that?). Before it seems as though the whole summer might pass him by. Fortunately, Jack finds his time with Miss Volker to be fascinating, and that’s before all the little old ladies in town start dying off at an remarkably quickfire rate. Is there something natural or unnatural behind these deaths? And more importantly, will Jack ever get to play an honest game of baseball under the shining sun ever again?
Here’s a quick tip on how you can determine if a writer’s any good. Generally speaking, if you can get to page three and already know the personalities of four different characters exquisitely well, that’s a writer to keep an eye on. Gantos does precisely that with this book too. By the fourth page you’ve a good sense of your narrator (a nose-bleeder who pities a pony and likes a good war movie), his mother (helpful to neighbors, critical of her son’s behavior, with her own projects to take care of), his uncle (a “confused jerk”, or so says his sister), and his father (a former navy man who once stripped dead Japanese soldiers of their weapons and keepsakes). It’s quick, it’s fast, it’s easy. Without lingering, Gantos can give you snapshot after snapshot of a character’s qualities, both good and bad.
I’m a sucker for a good theme and though I know that Dead End in Norvelt probably wasn’t Mr. Gantos’s first choice of a title, it may suit the book to a certain extent. Not too long ago there were a couple middle grade books set in or around funeral homes (Each Little Bird That Sings, The Funeral Director’s Son, etc.). Gantos doesn’t go quite that far, but a funeral home does play a role in this book and death becomes one of two themes here. I mean, think about it. From the idea of a town that is dying (dramatically and quickly) to the people in that town that die, to the rats and vermin in Miss Volker’s basement, to the perpetual obituaries, to the historical deaths recounted gloriously, there’s a whole lotta dying going on here. Not that you’d initially notice, I think. Really,
The other theme? There’s a bit the comic Eddie Izzard does about Scooby-Doo that comes immediately to mind. Izzard argues that Shaggy and Scooby are significant literary characters because they are cowards and you root for them. “And is there any other character out there, a cowardly character, that you root for in the same way?” Falstaff, maybe, but there’s a melancholy to him that sort of rules him out. Cowardice is a great theme of Novelt too, but one could easily argue that though the main character might describe himself as a coward (dead people do nothing for him) the reader could see that the opposite is the case. Consider the role of the Hell’s Angels in this book. They are built to look tough (and, indeed, they make for fantastic literary villains since unlike a lot of demonized groups of this time period the Angels didn’t have an underlying philosophy to make them historically sympathetic). They wear tough clothes and get into fights and look mean. Yet Miss Volker puts her finger on it when she calls them cowards. They sneak into small towns burning down buildings just for the heck of it. They beat up old men because there’s no chance of retribution. They are cowards. Jack, in contrast, is willing to do what is frightening to him. The Angels could hardly say as much.
Of course the whole reason to come to this book in the first place is to bear witness to the poetry of the language. Individual lines would just jump out at me and demand to be noticed. Lines like “Something had to be wrong with me, but one really good advantage about being dirt-poor is that you can’t afford to go to the doctor and get bad news.” Even better: “. . . if you think about it a refrigerator is just a coffin for food that stands upright.” Or the line from Jack’s friend who stares at his incoming irate mother while his nose bleeds: “Why are you standing around like vampire bait?” There are a million good lines in this book. These are just some of my own personal favs.
Some folks will be turned off by the less than enticing details surrounding the book. The dead bodies, the blood that pours from Jack’s nose like a faucet, etc. Others will be fine with that but will find the ending of the story a bit darker than they’d expected. I had no problems with any of these, and I don’t think most kids will either. What I did have a small problem with was the fact that though the book is set in the post-WWII era, Jack is one heckuva forward thinking guy. The kind of kid who sides with the Aztecs when he reads about their slaughter at the hands of the Spaniards. I’d like to think that the kid would be that liberal in his history reading, but frankly I’m not so sure. I mean, it’s not like he has that many influences in his life that would inform such thoughts. His father, sure as heck, wouldn’t be encouraging Jack to think that way. Dunno. Seemed a bit out of place in an otherwise consistent novel.
In the Preface, Mr. Gantos does not care to specify which elements of this story have their basis in truth and which have their basis in far-flung fiction. I suspect you’ll be able to parse the two in your own mind, even while you sit back and admire the man’s storytelling skills. By and large, the book is built for a stage production. You’ve a limited number of sets and a small manageable cast. Kids, however, will be most intrigued by the book if you hook them on the darker elements. The sheer gushing torrents of blood (this has got to be the most inadvertent blood-soaked book of the year), the deaths, and even the mystery, when told properly, should lure them in. It’s not an easy book, but it does make for a compelling story, in spite of the protagonist’s limited movements. I walked into this title looking for an explanation of what makes Jack Gantos tick. I never found my answer. Instead, I found a book I can read and enjoy and recommend ad nauseum. And as trades go, that one sounds like a good deal to me.
On shelves September 13th.
Source: Galley lent by friend for review.
First Sentence: “School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it.”
Notes on the Cover: Well, now here’s where I’m going to sound a bit like a hypocrite. When Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now came out this year I just didn’t have enough nice things to say about the cover. Here, let’s play a little compare and contrast for fun.
Right. So, with Schmidt’s book I found the cover great. I loved the unraveled baseball, the bag as it referred to the grocery runs, and the fact that it didn’t have to lie about the era. Why not extend that love to the Gantos cover? Coupla reasons. First and foremost, when FSG was sending out their bound manuscripts of the book the cover was a general brown color. The spine, in contrast, showed just a slip of an image: A boy (presumably Jack) holding a pair of binoculars to his eyes, his white shirt covered in blood. Okay. Love the blood (even though his nose is mysteriously dry considering how red it is) and the binoculars. His hair is all wrong of course (blond buzzcut rather than brown curls) but it’s such an intriguing image. Now we look at what they went with and . . . eh. It’s not really as personable. Again we’re hiding the era, aside from the plane, but while there’s nothing here to indicate that it’s in the past there’s also nothing to indicate the plot or to intrigue the reader. It’s sort of a dud. Not offensive to the eye or anything but also not of huge interest. More of a ho-hum cover. Perhaps if it does well they’ll change it for the paperback. It certainly has enough room on the side for awards.