Monday, May 9, 2016

THE BOY IN HIS WINTER: An American Novel by Norman Lock

This review first appeared at The Small Press Book Review



The Boy in His Winter: An American Novel
Norman Lock

Bellevue Literary Press
$14.95 paperback, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

Repurposing great works of literature, famous characters from same, and/or dead authors in modern ways and to modern ends is almost overdone as a phenomenon. Really, writers. Stop it.

I said "almost overdone" because, if I know publishing at all, they will collectively ride this hobby-horse's hooves entirely off. There are a few of these cultural appropriations that are enjoyable, of course, it's statistically impossible that such a gigantic amount of work won't produce a shining light now and then. I think of Catherynne Valente's Russian fairy-tale reinterpretation of Baba Yaga in Deathless and grin all over my face. So the tap will continue to drip even after the shower's over. It ain't over yet, though.

It's in that silver river-shine light that I approached The Boy in His Winter. Is this another misappropriation or maladaptation of a novel that's been entwined into the USA's sense of itself? Happily, no...but.

I love author Lock's prose (my copy of the book has 10 Book Darts marking especially lovely passages or especially telling insights). It slides easy, inviting toes to dangle or shoulders to float, gently rocking.
To ennoble is to diminish by robbing people of their complexity, their completeness, of their humanity, which is always clouded by what gets stirred up at the bottom.
That these complex and honeyed words are put in crude, ill-bred Huck Finn's mouth works because we're told from the get-go that he's an old man now and telling his story to an unnamed, depersonalized amanuensis. And I wonder, since the novel's frame is 2077, if that amanuensis isn't some form of AI, which might also account for the fact that Huck (now called Albert, or Al, since rejoining normal time after Katrina) always addresses the unseen being as if responding to questions. Much like a good writer's-amanuensis software would program it to do: "Comes complete with wandering-thought alert and long-silence breaker!"

That I'm conjecturing this, since I wasn't told or shown it in any way, is a source of my itchy lack of satisfaction with the book as a whole. Huck and Jim get on their stolen raft in 1835 and float, magically out of time's reach, until certain points in history, national and personal. I can go there. I can love the trip. My disbelief is suspended from the moment I open this kind of book. But when all the author does with my suspended disbelief is take advantage of it so as not to have to work at explaining his authorial choices...well, pop goes the weasel and here I am with my teeth in my mouth wondering what I was thinking when I started this sentence:
The raft was seized, with a noise like needles knitting, and we were hemmed in for winter -- river and the old channel's oxbow lake having frozen solid. By now, we guessed we were not two ordinary river travelers...it must have been the river that was extraordinary: a marvel that protected us by the same mysterious action that had given a common horse wings and changed a woman into a laurel tree.
I read the author's mind (always a dangerous act) to hear, "I'll make a classical allusion to magical transformations and maybe they'll glide on by the Hows and gaze lovingly at the Whys." Now, don't mistake me, I'm not asking Lock to invent some hard-SF gobbledygook that doesn't belong in this book. What I'm left wanting is a Why that has the power to cause Huck to introspect all through the book, to meditate on the nature of his and Jim's unique experience and how it's made him who and what he is.
{Y}ou make do with what you're given, and I've spent a good many years learning to write fine-sounding sentences so that I can hide behind them. It's the way of the hermit crab, with nothing to recommend it but the pretty shell it annexes for its own.
Don't know about you, but I could use more of this beautiful revelation and on many more topics. Again, I stress that I don't want the book to be something it isn't, some Guide To Life or some kind of Aliens Messed With My Tachyon Bodyspace. I love the concept as it's written. But it isn't doing enough of what it does so well to merit the full five stars I begin by giving every book I am seduced into picking up.

Bellevue Literary Press is to be commended for publishing this life-intersecting-science story in such a beautiful, well-crafted package. Norman Lock is Norman Lock, and doesn't need the likes of me to praise his talent, demonstrated so amply so very often in a long career. (May 2014)

Yet I wanted more than I got of the sweetness he gave.

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