December 30, 2005

'Many' Pages Later...

Periodically, I read "boy books" just to make sure my game's still good. I can't even doodle boys when I draw characters, so I have had grave doubts about 'getting' boys well enough to write them (not that I let that stop me!), and often read male authors' takes on guys and their issues. I found an interesting writer - Paul Many, who, while not just a writer is a writing professor in Toledo, and has written a couple of what are arguably 'boy books.'
These Are The Rules is a straightforward novel of a boy who's life is going, well, in circles. Badly. He'd promised himself he'd never spend another summer out at the boring lake cabin where he'd spent way too much time as a little kid, but here he is. Again. Last summer he'd also promised himself that he'd swim the lake -- all two miles across and who-knows-how-many fathoms deep. He hasn't done that, either. He is going to be a Senior next year, and he has the feeling that nothing in his life is going forward. But then, he notices a couple of things. One is his boss's niece. The other is the girl in the cabin next door. Neither one of them is like he remembers. Could maybe things like his perfectionistic, annoying father and even his own self not be quite as dire as they seem?

Boys books have their own sense of drama. It's not quite like the drama in a book dedicated to a feminine audience, but it's there in the tension and in subtler, smaller ways. I appreciated
Rules because protagonist Colm has a genuine-ness that comes out of his voice -- he continually misjudges the world (and the girls) around him, and makes goofy missteps, but his constant inner dialogue help make him a comprehensible character. Each chapter concludes with a single sentence 'moral du jour' type declaration that is often dead wrong, quite right, or merely amusingly Colm-esque.

Walk Away Home, Many's most recent book, uses the same kind of internal dialogue in the form of soliloquys every chapter which are, unfortunately, too adult to be genuine. The comments are hardly the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of a 17-year-old boy who takes to the road -- on foot because of rampant car sickness -- every time trouble comes. The internal musings, whether they be on paper or sort of voiced in his head, stand alone in the text, and lack the self-consciousness of internal dialogue that would lead the writer/thinker to admit to some sense of hubris in the I Am A Serious Writer/Thinker style in which they come across. Though beautifully written, they add a confusing note to the novel.

The storyline is convoluted anyway. Nick is being sent to a military school for accidentally burning down his aunt's old house, which was vacant, and which is where he's hung out, wistfully, since she disappeared. He knows he's going, he just decides to skip orientation and go and see his aunt first. Nick had, we later find, a brother who died, and parents who never told him how hard a time that was for them. He seems to expect that it was easy for them, and that they resent him for surviving because they never seemed to crack. He also seems to imagine that his aunt won't mind if he looks her up again and expects to crash in her house like he's still five and running away from home, even if she is struggling to make ends meet and dealing with her own demons which include incessant chain smoking and living in basically a dump.

Nick is obviously immature, right? Then how come the storyline twists and thrusts him into the role of a Savior and Father? Yep, all this, without him having any personal epiphanies about his own parents, or with him experiencing any real personal discomfort or angst as a result of striding in to save someone. He rejects his parents, refuses to come home, runs away to Aunt Wanda, and leaves phone messages. He avoids his reality in order to submerge himself into someone else's problems, and that -- a problem in and of itself -- is never addressed.

The 'someone-else's-problem' is weighty as well. A snippy and wealthy troublemaker who, together with her stoner friends, steal the wishing well and pelt garbage at the little hippie neighborhood where he and his aunt live, is dealing with being molested and fearing for her younger sisters. Suddenly she is a sympathetic character (due entirely to her hotness, of course, the only reason why Nick doesn't turn her in when he discovers she's one of the people who routinely throws rotted fruit at his aunt's house) and Nick wades in to save her. Now, understand that this is solely a literary argument and not touching at all on my personal beliefs about karma or anything else crazy, but if this is a boy book intended for a predominantly male YAH audience, why, for once, can't the victim be... male? Especially since this was written by a male author... Why does drama always have to be female? Would it have diminished the hero to save a male friend from being molested? Or, because he could not also have dually played the part of the love interest (and there's ANOTHER issue I won't even touch), would that have completely firebombed the plot? I do believe it's time to stop victimizing women only on this topic already. Okay. Rant over.

I'd be interested in hearing anyone else's take on this topic, or either novel. Both deal with boys having difficult relationships with fathers, and finding out that their parent's personal issues have affected them more than they knew. I did appreciate that the character in Walk Away Home eventually came to the conclusion that it was his own selfishness and treating his parents' opinions as a foregone conclusion that had led to the difficulties he was in, but we really don't get a good glimpse at the process -- it's like suddenly he has a few bad moments when he's told his parents almost divorced when he was a five year old, and voila, he matures. It becomes clear that he assumed his parents; he had recreated them in an image he'd projected from his own mind.

I was disappointed also that Many didn't have the molested daughter turn her father in. It's not even discussed, ever, as an option -- not even when the Aunt finds out what's going on. I'm not sure what it does for humanity to have him move to another town with the daughter holding his collection of illegal underage internet porn over his head when he could be hurting someone else out there, but whatever.

You know, the more I talk about it, the more I don't want someone else to check out this book. Not on my account, anyway.


That's it for boy books, this week.

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