29 September 2012

Publisher crushes: The Other (Thomas Tryon), Lazarus is Dead (Richard Beard)

The Other, Thomas Tryon (NYRB Classics, Oct. 2): A horror-novel bestseller from the early 70s, packed with reliable tropes--tropes because they work, otherwise they'd be clichés. We've got the bucolic New England town, a long-established family in decline, a slightly psychic ethnic grandmother (Russian), and most notably, in the person of creepy, vicious, taciturn Holland Perry, the evil twin. (Evil children were big in the 70s, weren't they? I'm sure film theorists have written about this, but I'm gonna speculate it's because Baby Boomers started having kids and got cranky about not being the center of attention anymore.) The Other is ominously paced, and Tryon reveals his secrets at optimum times, making for a page-turning read with some excellent shocks. This was the only book I picked up (as an ARC) at Book Expo America this May (because I knew the guy at the NYRB booth from book club, and was too shy to talk to anybody else), so I'm glad I liked it as much as I did. (P.S. There is one other doozy of a trope here . . . I shall leave it as an exercise for readers more astute than I.)

Lazarus is Dead, Richard Beard (Europa Editions): Yep, that Lazarus. This is a fascinating novel, counting down until the famous revenant's demise and beyond, reconstructing a wryly humorous, quasi-historical (and not at all blasphemous, always a nice surprise in modern literary fiction!) account of Lazarus's life, death and resurrection. Extrapolating from the Bible, hagiography, fiction, and drama, Beard makes some pretty compelling connections. I loved especially the idea that Lazarus was the son of Joseph's best friend, the only other family to escape Herod's slaughter of the innocents--thus relieving Joseph of the guilt of running off to Egypt and leaving all those other children to die. It works, right? The whole thing works. And it kinda made me wanna go to Mass.

28 September 2012

Vertical reads: Pro Bono (Seicho Matsumoto), Naoko (Keigo Higashino), Flowers of Evil Vol. 3 (Shuzo Oshimi)

I've mentioned before that my friend Ed at Vertical hooks me up with a steady string of awesome Japanese works in translation--the small publisher's stock in trade. I always wanna be up front with personal connections to the books I write about, back-scratchin' in book-reviewin' being what it is . . . but c'mon, I'm not gonna not write about books I like! Here are three.

Pro Bono, Seicho Matsumoto: While I think I'd shelve this 1961 novel (filmed multiple times in Japan, most recently in 2010) in Mystery, it's not a whodunit or even a procedural--the story really starts where most mysteries end, and spirals out from there into deep, dark, uncomfortable greatness. It begins when a young woman from the provinces arrives at hotshot Tokyo lawyer Keiichi Abe's office, pleading with him to take the case of her older brother, arrested for murder, whom she believes is innocent. But she can't pay his fees, and he's preoccupied anyway about meeting up with his lover for a round of golf and adultery, so he turns her down. Her brother is convicted, and dies in prison waiting for his appeal; Abe finds himself drawn back to the case after it's too late. Pro Bono is about injustice, inaction, and the uselessness of remorse--and eventually, about revenge. First-rate!

Naoko, Keigo Higashino: And then there's this novel, which I'd shelve under . . . uh, is Unsettling Body-Switching Gender-Role-Exploring Coming-of-Age a genre? No? Can we not make it one, because Naoko simultaneously creates and perfects the concept? Great! Anyway, to elaborate: after Heisuke's wife, Naoko, and 11-year-old daughter, Monami, are in a terrible bus accident, the latter wakes from a coma claiming--convincingly--to be the former. When they return home, Naoko/Monami finds herself living two lives, the junior high student and the dutiful housewife (because it doesn't even occur to Heisuke that maybe he should lend a hand with dinner while she does her homework, argh): until she realizes she wants more from her daughter's life than she achieved in her own. Heisuke, used to taking his authority as father and husband for granted, is baffled and outraged by her struggle for independence, and the conflict heightens as she matures in body as in mind. So creepy and weird in all the right ways!

Speaking of which . . . Flowers of Evil, Volume 3, Shuzo Oshimi (out October 23): OH MAN. This terrific manga series just keeps ramping up the queasy-making adolescent sexuality and psychological manipulation and small-town boredom and decadent-author-worship to new heights, and I'm totally in love with it. But I would not let it date my son.

25 September 2012

My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

I've been curious about Elena Ferrante for a while--Stephanie, late of WORD, adored her The Days of Abandonment, and y'know I have a publisher-crush on Europa Editions. Abandonment, though, is about a woman's descent into madness after her husband leaves her, and I . . . haven't been up to it. Possibly may never be? My Brilliant Friend, on the other hand, is a painstaking, heartfelt chronicle of female friendship and a portrait of mid-twentieth-century Neapolitan culture--totally my speed.

While I generally liked My Brilliant Friend, I'm having trouble writing about it--its strengths and weakness derive from the same cause, its exhaustive scope. This is book one of a trilogy, told in flashback--so while we know from the outset that Lila, narrator Elena's lifelong friend, has vanished in her sixty-sixth year, we only hear their story from early childhood through the marriage of one in her late teens. Ferrante tells their story not only of their friendship, but their poor Naples neighborhood, and the myriad connections, feuds, and histories of the families surrounding them. She handles the many characters deftly (I was worried I'd have to continually refer back to the cast listing at the beginning of the book, but didn't), and vivid and poignant moments abound. Sometimes I felt bogged down by detail, however.

The Italians in my family background come from Sicily, not Naples, and came to the United States (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, specifically--what shock that change of climate must have been, eh?) several decades before the 1950s where the story begins; but I couldn't help but have the Zaffiros and Serios in the back of my mind, especially when Lila--at the top of her class all through elementary school--isn't allowed to continue her education, while Elena goes on. My great-grandmother Grace left school after eighth grade at her parents' behest despite her longing to go on; her un-studious brother was sent. I'm told it was an injustice she never got over.

FUN FACT: Despite being one of Italy's top literary authors, Elena Ferrante's real name and whereabouts are popularly unknown. Isn't that crazy? MAYBE SHE'S SHAKESPEARE

16 September 2012

Old-school frantic catchup post.

So sometimes, I've got seven books waiting in my to-be-reviewed pile, and they all deserve a full write-up, but I've been horribly fatigued and ache-y for weeks again (the doctor thinks it's fibromyalgia), and it's just not going to happen. So rather than skip over the books, I'm gonna give them woefully short shrift in a "HERE I READ THESE I LIKED 'EM" post.

The Ugly Duchess, Eloisa James: I'll admit, while I connected to this latest entry in Eloisa's brill fairytale series on a gut-and-heart level, I found parts of the narrative kinda silly . . . i.e., the hero becomes a pirate for a while. But y'know, I feel like romance is best measured in emotional terms, and gosh I ached for the heroine, Theo, a super-smart lady who's heard from meanies all her life that she's ugly, her breasts too small, her features too large. Specifically, they say she "looks like a boy." (Yeah, this resonates like crazy, since I weathered the same insults for a good chunk of my own experience.) Her worst fears are realized when she learns that her childhood friend, James Ryburn, has married her to cover up his wastrel father's embezzlement of Theo's fortune. She throws him out, and hears nothing from him for seven years, when he barges triumphantly into the House of Lords during the proceedings to declare him legally dead--sun-browned, scarred, and savage. He's determined to prove to her that it wasn't just mercenary motives that led to his proposal, but there's bitterness and mistrust on both sides to overcome. I do like reconciliation plots in romance, but I kinda thought it was a tragedy that young, sweet James had to become so growly and alpha-male to win back his Daisy.

The Fantasy Hall of Fame, edited Robert Silverberg: A found-on-the-street coup, this is a mammoth (500+ pages) anthology of fantastic tales, selected in 1996 by the members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. I'd only read two of the stories before--"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (Borges) and "The Lottery" (Shirley Jackson), both of which obviously bear rereading; the rest cover fifty years of imaginative writing, wildly divergent in prose style and subject matter. A lot of the authors were new to me, particularly the early ones (H.L. Gold, L. Sprague de Camp, C.L. Moore), and many were familiar names who I shamefully haven't read but now must all the more: Poul Anderson ("Operation Afreet"), Peter S. Beagle ("Come Lady Death"), Gene Wolfe ("The Detective of Dreams"), Roger Zelazny ("Unicorn Variations"), Robert Silverberg ("Basileus"). Weirdly, it seems to be out of print, but super-easy to find used. Or waiting on the sidewalk for a sharp-eyed fiancé, a gift from the city!

A Contract with God and Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, Will Eisner: Speaking of pivotal genre figures, Eisner's one of the pioneers of the modern graphic novel--heck, the biggest American comics award is named for him. Both these titles are set on a fictional Bronx street; Contract contains four related tales set in the 1930s, among the mostly Jewish, working-class denizens of a single tenement. Here I had my usual problem with sequential-art-lit, which is that I read it too dang fast, so it ends up feeling slight, which I hasten to blame on my own text bias and not the medium itself. I liked Dropsie Avenue more, finding its historical ambition and Tolstoy-numerous cast much easier to follow with the aid of art. It follows the street from 1870s farmland through urban growth and sprawl and decay and renewal, through successive waves of immigrants, each in term weathering bigotry from the established inhabitants until they become the establishment: Dutch, English, Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, African-American, Romani . . . the grand sweep doesn't keep him from telling tiny stories as well. It's a great work of historical fiction.

Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, Arthur Conan Doyle: Between trying to kill off Sherlock Holmes in "The Final Problem" and resurrecting him by popular demand in "The Adventure of the Empty House," Doyle spent ten years writing these charming comic tales of by Etiénne Gerard, Napoleonic soldier of great bravery and mustache, who, like Harry Flashman's good twin, manages to meet a litany of important figures and be privy to the real stories behind what the historical record believes. Gerard is delightful, a wonderful mix of full of himself and genuinely courageous and skilled, and as Flashman's chronicler George MacDonald Fraser says in his introduction, it's subtly subversive that Doyle's hero is from the wrong side of the Channel, allowing him to satirize French and English alike--Gerard's oblivious misreadings of English sport are particularly hilarious. We've got the zillionth iteration of the Holmes-Watson pairing hitting CBS this fall; surely someone can spare the time to make a miniseries with Doyle's second greatest creation? I'd love to see Thomas from Downtown Abbey with luxuriant whiskers . . .

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Kathleen Alcott: Loved the writing in this first novel! It hits my literary-fiction sweet spot where the Big Themes (family, memory, identity) don't overwhelm the relentless and ephemeral details of everyday life and personality.

Among Others, Jo Walton: This having won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards this year, I feel confident in not belaboring the praise--sci-fi/fantasy is way better than literary fiction at deserved awards. It is, as fifteen-year-old Morwenna would say, brill, both a great fantasy in its own right and a paean to dozens of the best writers (several of whom appear in The Fantasy Hall of Fame), books, and short stories of the genre. Thank Zeus for the Internet--someone with more stamina than me has already compiled a list of every book mentioned!

05 September 2012

Breed (Chase Novak)

So my "hey, I should read more horror" notion is thus far limited to picking up horror-lookin' ARCs when they come in at work, with predictably mixed results. (Totally taking nominations.) Chase Novak*'s Breed didn't set me on fire (which, huh, how did that get to be a positive metaphor), but it's well-crafted, well-written, imbued with a strong sense of place, and genuinely scary and grotesque in places. Definitely a Like!

The place is Manhattan, a setting that's indeed been done and done--I'd be interested to see a statistical analysis of books and movies set in NYC as compared to the proportion of the U.S. population who actually lives here. But Spencer conjures it in meticulous though casual detail--cross streets as shorthand for whole ways of life, from rarefied private schools and families of four that live in three-story brownstones by themselves instead of in an apartment chopped out of a quarter of a floor . . . to two grown men in a 600-square-foot existence, "continually trying to navigate around each other, like dancers unsure of the choreography." Also, because I am just enough of a New Yorker now to be totally ignorant about the city outside my corner of it, the book alerted me to the existence of this badass statue of fifteenth-century Polish king Jagiello, in Central Park.

In the former, monied stratum, Alex and Leslie Twisden try in vain to conceive for three years, swapping stories of fertility doctors with other couples until they get a lead on a Slovenian physician named Kis ("[h]e looks like one of those concert pianists in the movies, the kind who are struck with amnesia or who hear voices, who triumph briefly in the concert hall and then descend into madness") with a mysterious magic-bullet treatment. And sure enough, after a humiliating and painful series of injections, Leslie becomes pregnant.

And also increasingly hirsute. When she visits a dermatologist about hair removal, she ends up biting through the woman's finger. Meanwhile, Alex tries to track down the couple who originally recommended Dr. Kis, and discovers their apartment abandoned in shambles, the stinking refrigerator filled with Ziplocked corpses of rats, squirrels, and hamsters. He eats one of the latter in four bites--"[i]t is easily and without question the most delicious thing he has ever tasted."

Yet all this is merely prologue to the main action ten years later, where the Twisden twins, Adam and Alice, live in seeming privilege but are locked in their rooms every night, listening through the wee hours to noises both sexual and violent issuing from the rest of the house, where the furniture falls progressively into disrepair, often shredded. Their escape and subsequent flight from their parents and towards unsettling truths about their origins is harrowing, tense . . . and a lot of fun to read.

*(This is a pseudonym for Scott Spencer, author of literary novels I haven't read, most famously Endless Love. Except every scrap of promotional material I've seen for the book says so, posing the question: how can a pseudonym be a pseudonym when the author's real name is on the back of the book? Discuss.)

04 September 2012

NW (Zadie Smith)

The terse title of Zadie Smith's sad, funny, knowing new novel NW refers to a set of postcodes in northwest London, where it takes place. (The preceding sentence brought to you by a Wikipedian rabbit hole of British administrative nomenclature, capped off by the hilariously named article "NUTS of the United Kingdom.") The book's four parts, "Visitation," "Guest," "Host," and "Crossing," correspond roughly to four characters--Leah, Felix, Keisha-cum-Natalie, and Nathan--who are linked by their time as children in the Caldwell council estate (Americans would call it a housing project). Their storylines collide, intersect, keep pace, and diverge throughout; while the parallel-lives construction, and the mostly working-class milieu, are familiar from other modern novels, I can hardly think of enough positive adjectives for Smith's prose. (Or un-cliched ones: lapidary! scintillating! trenchant! Like an obsidian knife?)

Each protagonist's part of NW is written in a distinct style, connecting diction with disposition. All are beautiful. Felix's section, "Guest," is the most straightforward, as is his story, that of a tragic striver. Its chapters are called after the postcodes where they take place, and while the sentences don't take structural chances, they remain full of precise, packed imagery: "His belly stayed concave, a curtain sucked in through an open window."

"Host" follows Keisha's journey from her Caldwell upbringing to her adulthood as Natalie, high-powered and emotionally empty lawyer. Her obsessive need to order her life results in a numbered series of mini-chapters, some only a sentence long--largely chronological, but in the way that memory is chronological, jumping sometimes forward, sometimes back. In "Crossing," her settled existence shattered, she takes a walk with Nathan Bogle, once the cutest boy in the class, now a homeless addict--together, they literally pace out the path of their shared youth, their steps ringing hollowly through the present.

My favorite, though, is "Visitation." Told from Leah's perspective, the section is fragmented like her consciousness, the sentences often literally so. Dialogue sometimes, but not always, is set off with what another Wikipedia digression informs me is called a "quotation dash," a definite break with her internal monologue. Every now and then, the narrative cascades into chaotic, scattered lines on the page, voices and thoughts crowding over each other. I was mesmerized by the very first sentence: "The fat sun stalls by the phone masts." Listen (I want to use the Old English hwæt): it's a heavy, even stride like climbing stairs contrasted with the quick hiss and spit of the fricatives--an almost synesthetic pleasure to speak, the sounds on the tongue like cherry tomatoes, discrete, smooth, bursting.

Impossible for me to write about without trying to emulate it.

03 September 2012

Guest post! by Immortal Lycanthropes author Hal Johnson

Since I'm sticking by my "don't review friends' books" code, I can't just tell you Hal Johnson's Immortal Lycanthropes is great--though it is! But I've spent most Tuesday nights over the past couple of years immersed in a Hal-created world, playing a literally epic game of Dungeons & Dragons, based in an alternate tenth-century where all the legends of every country are true. (Turns out Albania has the craziest folktales. Seriously, look 'em up!)

And Lycanthropes, his first YA novel, is similarly wide-ranging, ambitious, and wryly funny--and exactly what it says on the tin. It's the story of Myron Horowitz, a horribly scarred, friendless thirteen-year-old who learns he's part of an underworld of were-mammals--not humans who can turn into animals, but animals who can turn into humans--and that the mystery of who he really is means a lot of people want him dead.

One of my favorite things about the book is the debt it owes to 19th-century "boys' adventure" books, a largely forgotten genre whose patterns and tropes nevertheless echo throughout modern fiction. Hal, who's probably the most well-read person I've ever met, graciously agreed to write up an arbitrarily-numbered list of Five Boys' Adventure Books We Should All Read--so without further ado . . . 

Hi! I’m Hal Johnson, Anna’s Dungeon Master, and she was kind enough to offer me a guest spot here. I wrote an adventure novel coming out tomorrow, Immortal Lycanthropes, that was in part inspired by the boys’ adventure novels I read as a kid. Because I tended to get my books from garage sales and my grandparents’ attics, a lot of them were older, and I ended up with a real affection for nineteenth-century boys’ adventure fiction. So I thought I’d introduce a couple of interesting books of the genre.

The problem with boys’ adventure books is that a lot of them are not very good. G.A. Henty wrote over a hundred books for boys; four of them were adapted into comic books in Classics Illustrated, and they may be better in that form.  So any interested reader may have to suffer through leaden prose and wooden characters; but it’s not a real adventure unless you suffer for it, is it? The books I picked are not necessarily the best boys’ adventure novels of the period (The Coral Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Howard Pyle are notable for their absence), but they’re all pretty awesome. They’re pretty awesome even if you’re not (as we probably all should be) a twelve-year-old boy.

Best of all, they’re all public domain and available for free on the internets!

1. The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1870)

Thomas Bailey Aldrich is one of those writers who used to be everywhere and is now almost totally forgotten. The books he edited, especially The Young Folks’ Library series, or his poetry or travel writing, are always turning up in used bookstores. But his finest work may be the pseudo-autobiographical boys’ book The Story of a Bad Boy, often cited as the first American book to depict boyhood realistically (in this way it’s exactly analogous to the British Tom Brown’s School Days). I say pseudo-autobiographical because some parts of the book are clearly fictional—one reunion in particular would have seemed hoary and implausible even decades earlier in a Dickens novel—but others ring so true that they must have happened, or been remembered, that way.

The plot is episodic, which is to say nonexistent, just a series of events in the life of a boy newly come to coastal New Hampshire. But Bailey establishes, even more than Tom Brown, what would become an axiom of boy’s literature through most of the next century: that the true adventure is not imperialistic warfare (ala Henty) but childhood itself, and that what must first be explored are the woods at the edge of town. Bailey’s account of Fort Slatter—a snow fort, of course—and its heroic defense is written like an Iliad, and all the literature of sea voyages can offer little as harrowing as the voyage of the little rowboat Dolphin. Eliade remarked a hundred years later that children live in a mythical time, and Bailey was among the first to remember this fact into adulthood, and record it. Robert Newton Peck, John D. Fitzgerald, Bertrand Brinley, et al., (not to mention, on a different vector, Jean Shepherd or Robert Paul Smith) would be unthinkable without this innovation.

Although it’s sometimes clunky, sometimes embarrassingly melodramatic, and sometimes, especially near the beginning, unnecessarily racist in the way only old “humorous” passages can be, The Story of a Bad Boy is well worth reexamination, both as a historical record of American boyhood and for its passages of mythic grandeur.

2. In Search of Treasure by Horatio Alger (1894)

Horatio Alger is more known than read nowadays, known for the rags-to-riches archetype, the poor boy rising through “luck and pluck” (his terms) to the middle-class.

In a lot of ways, Alger exemplifies all the worst in nineteenth-century boy’s books, or in fact in nineteenth-century popular literature in general. He’s smug and moralistic, his characters are priggish, coincidence favors the hero so heavily that it can be easy to feel sympathy for the villain. All his plots are more or less the same, so much so that his biography of James A. Garfield can be distinguished only insofar as here the hard-working poor boy grows up to be respectable and then [SPOILER] becomes president and gets assassinated; the assassination of the protagonist doesn’t recur in other Alger books. As he aged, Alger became fonder and fonder of that C19 boogeyman, the unexpected inheritance, so much so that one wag (whose name I’ve forgotten) suggested Alger proves that in America any young man can, through hard work and enterprise, grow up to be the grandson of a billionaire. His books are filled with accidental sexual innuendo, and not only is a minor character in Struggling Upward named Fanny Pratt (ha!), but a major character in several books who searches for orphan boys to adopt as his wards is named Dick Hunter (ha ha!).

Alger’s unflagging faith in America and the middle class are easy to parody (Nathanael West did the best job, in the still-hilarious A Cool Million), but at the same time, his vision of the middle class is the warmest in all of literature, and a breath of fresh air for anyone used to the contempt of a Flaubert or a Stendahl. Alger’s middle class is unpretentious, generous, hardworking, and tolerant of anything except alcohol and billiards. Above all they are not snobs. Snobs (along with kidnappers, of course) are Alger’s true villains. You can almost always pick out the bad guy in town in an Alger book because he’s the one insisting on being called “squire.” Time and again, the good guys stress (in the face of an upturned nose) that any honest work is honorable. Bankers (always good guys here) nod in hearty approval at ditch diggers and street peddlers, while the idle squires are busy tsking. Above all there is the belief that wealth must be used to benefit others, and virtuous tycoons are always willing to give an opportunity to any ”frank-faced” boy; when these boys make it good, they become the benefactors, in later books, to other “frank” urchins. (“Frankness,” along with “pluckiness” and perhaps industriousness are the cardinal Alger virtues.)

But we’re not here to talk about the middle class, we’re here to talk about AWESOME ADVENTURE! Because for all their problems, Alger books are always home to awesome adventure. Often they take place in the streets of New York, but they may well involve a trip to the wild west; and they always involve a boy hero leaving home (if he has one!) and striking off on his own and braving the unknown. Whether he’s facing grizzly bears or grifters depends on where he is, but he’s got to be facing one or the other.

It’s somewhat arbitrary, therefore, which Alger book to feature. I picked In Search of Treasure, just because it’s one of the more adventuresome.  It’s the story of young Guy Fenwick, whose uncle left him clues to a pirate treasure buried on an island in the Indian Ocean. By odd chance, Guy gets a job on a ship sailing to India soon after. Guy learns that the Indian Ocean is really big, though, and instead of going anywhere near his treasure, he finds in Bombay a patron and a job, and has to speed over to England to overthrow the reign of a tyrannical schoolmaster (!).

Alger characters have a tendency to go on a long journey two-thirds of the way through a book, a structural habit few authors have chosen to imitate. In In Search of Treasure, this means that the final third of the book starts with Guy actually setting off on his treasure hunt. There will be betrayal and marooning and benevolent older wealthy men, and of course, back home the town swell, who thought money made him a big shot, needs to get a look at all that treasure.

This is all perfectly ridiculous, I’ll admit, but Alger tells it all with such a straight face that it is irresistible. It’s pure kitsch, but anyone with any kind of fondness for kitsch plus adventure will find a real-life treasure chest in Alger’s oeuvre.

3. The Boy Hunters by Captain Mayne Reid (1853)

Captain Mayne Reid’s The Boy Hunters is in some ways not a very good book, either, but parts are crazy enough to be capital-G Great. The adventure portion, which features three brothers trekking through the western frontier in order to bag a white buffalo to impress some relative of Napoleon’s (!), is fine, when it’s actually happening, but that’s only about a third of the books. Another third is taken up with tedious lectures (often delivered by the brainy middle brother for the amusement and edification of the others) on the life cycles of animals and the industrial uses of plants—as well as strange rants against scientific naturalists and theoreticians in general. Fortunately another third of the book is taken up with NATURE SPECTACLE, and it’s pretty phenomenal. There are quite a few fight scenes, as nature red in tooth and claw grimly acts out a blood-soaked drama for our heroes to watch. This is the real meat of the book.

In one chapter, awesomely titled “Chain of Destruction,” the lads watch a fly get eaten by a hummingbird, which in turn is eaten by a tarantula, which in turn is eaten by a chameleon that is maimed by a skink that is eaten by a snake that is eaten by a kite that is killed by an eagle that is shot by our heroes. “This was the last link in the chain of destruction!” Although the moralistic middle brother helpfully points out that a bear could come along at any moment and form another link in this chain.

There are few chapters in literature that can compare to this one for a combination of pure action, bloodshed, awe in the face of nature, and philosophical extrapolation. Reid wrote over two dozen books, but if he'd written nothing but this one chapter, he deserves to be remembered in the canon

4. Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling (1899)

All right-thinking people hate Stalky & Co. Wells hated it enough that in his Outline of History he spends more space complaining about Stalky & Co. than on the life and career of Abraham Lincoln; and it was this condemnation of Stalky that I absorbed long before I read the book.

It’s not that Stalky isn’t a hateful book. It’s just that it’s an honest one, and if you were in a nineteenth-century boarding school you’d probably be hateful too.  Stalky and his “co.” of M’Turk and Beetle (modeled, apparently, on Kipling’s school-age friends, with Beetle being Kipling himself) get themselves into scrapes and outwit teachers the way modern analogues such as Bruno and Boots, or Harry Potter, do—but everything seems more violent, sordid, and terrifying than you would expect from a book about school. Except that violent, terrifying, and sordid should be the watchwords for any book about school. Stalky may be willing to go further than other schoolboys of literature, but it’s because his world is a darker and more horrible one. It’s easy to forget the boys Stalky ties up and tortures (in the scene that so upset Wells) are being paid back precisely the tortures they have inflicted on other, smaller children. Stalky doesn’t do this to make the innocent world of childhood a fallen world; presented with a fallen world, he leads his co. in an attempt to make it right. (Or sometimes to prank his enemies.)

This is all made explicit in the final chapter, where Kipling (no longer in his Beetle disguise) comes right out and explains how the skills the boys developed fighting against their school have made them expert at imperialistic adventure in their adulthoods. It goes without saying that any nineteenth-century British writer (let alone Kipling) will be more excited about imperialism than we’ll be today, but if you take it for what it’s supposed to stand for here (duty, patriotism, progress, helping society at large) you’ll find one of the most radically audacious proclamations about childhood any major writer has managed to slip through to a mass audience. Childhood is here painted as a Bizarro-world where the same actions that make you a bad boy (as Stalky certainly is) make you a good adult. The very morality of the schoolroom is backwards. No wonder Stalky’s vigilantism was needed to clean it up.

This is admittedly interpretive, and I’m not sure any other reader has ever taken the same message from the book—but I think it goes a long way to explaining why so many people hate Stalky and his Co. H. G. Wells could take or leave bourgeois civilization, and he may even be willing to assert that its values were the opposite if an innocent child’s—but he could scarcely play along with Kipling’s dialectic.

Two cautions on Stalky: Although Kipling is obviously a much better stylist than the three authors above, this book is at times almost unreadable because it is drenched in period slang (“Fids! Fids! Oh, fids! I gloat!”), and assumes a knowledge of “forms” and “fags” the lack of which can make a labyrinth of a simple tale. Also, it is often published, with extra stories added, as The Complete Stalky & Co., but the new stories are mostly unnecessary.

Kipling wrote other boys’ adventure books, varying in quality from Kim (snooze!) to The Jungle Books (awesome!), but none of them hold a candle to Stalky & Co. Very few books can.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

This is the big one, probably the greatest American novel and certainly the greatest boy’s adventure story. It’s also a book everyone knows, and almost everyone’s read. There’s no point “introducing” such a well-known book; but what I want to say about it is that it’s possible to read and love Huck Finn without understanding anything about the larger import or meaning that so often get discussed. I first read it in first grade, and it changed my life; of course a great deal went right over my head, and racial politics and ethical debates were completely beyond my ken, but I understood the idea of floating down a river, completely removed from society, and that was enough for me. It wasn’t something I was ever going to do—I assume rafting on the Mississippi is now illegal, and I assume if I tried it anyway, I’d just end up drowning—but the idea that theoretically one could pack up and run away from it all, was enough to get me through much of childhood, and good chunks of adulthood. Toby Tyler and to a lesser extent The Cruise of the Dazzler offered a similar opportunity, but Huck Finn offered it best.

(Another confusing thing it took me a long time to understand was that “pison” meant “poison.” Through several readings I honestly though that Huck was planning to piss on a dog.)

I’ve read a lot of criticism—the good and the bad kind—of Huck Finn over the years, and I’m glad the book can garner the kind of critical attention it does. But this is the rare book that you can strip most meaning from without crippling it. The spine of the book is a boy (and, paradoxically, a slave) who momentarily are free. I’ve never been free, but I tasted it vicariously, and that was enough. Everything else in the book, and every other analysis of the book, is superfluous.

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