“I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body.”
Cullen Witter is a snarky, intelligent teenage boy longing to escape the black hole that is his sleepy hometown of Lily, Arkansas. His world, both in micro and macro, unravels with a series of dramatic events during the summer before his senior year in high school. It starts with his cousin dying of an overdose, continues with Lily getting obsessed with the supposed reappearance of the extinct Lazarus woodpecker, and then things come completely undone when his beloved, sensitive fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, inexplicably disappears without a trace. Meanwhile, Benton Sage, a failed missionary trying to re-create his life after returning from a failed mission to Africa in utter disillusionment inadvertently infects his college room mate, Cabot Searcy, with an obsessive religious fanaticism, starting a chain of events that slowly draws these two disparate narratives together like ill-fated magnets.
I’ll start by saying that this is one of those books that makes me feel insecure about my own writing. Not only did this book win the Printz, which is prestigious enough, but it also won William C. Morris YA Debut Award. So, not only is this book really well-written and stupid full of literary merit, it’s also John Corey Whaley’s first book ever. Seriously? Just get out of here. I will say, however, that there were certain other Printz contenders that I loved more (ahem Scorpio Races ahem), but that’s more personal taste than anything else.
So, why is this book so well written? Let’s start with voice. I’m a sucker for a good first-person narrator. I qualify that statement with the adjective “good” because it seems like every other YA book is written in first-person while sounding totally non first-persony. A lot of writers seem to think that they can just use the word “I” and bam! They have first-person narration, totally overlooking the fact that first person is supposed to derive from an actual character, and therefore it should reflect the way that character talks. I loved the way Whaley balanced beautiful, insightful, literary writing with diction that sounded totally natural coming from a seventeen-year-old boy.
The second narrative is told from a more distanced third-person narrator, which is appropriate as the focus shifts from Benton Sage to Cabot Searcy. In both stories, we see a lot of that shapeshifter trauma – the immediate and lasting consequences, and the different forms it can take. The weaving of the two narratives, while seemingly totally unrelated at first, was subtle and masterful. The narrative dealing with the descent of Cabot from likeable college guy to traumatized, obsessive, religious psychopath was chilling. Yes, I did see the eventual connection between the two plots quite a ways before it was spelled out, but I wasn’t sure exactly how it got to that point, and so the journey there felt worthwhile and elegantly wrought.
There aren’t a whole lot of negatives here. I got a little bit tired of the zombie daydreams, but that could be because I don’t really like zombies 🙁 However, they do fit in really well with the overall theme of resurrection and rebirth, so, fine. I will also say that Cullen and Gabriel’s relationship was a bit too perfect. I don’t know of any siblings that adore each other quite that much, but whatever. My quibbles are really just me nitpicking.
Overall, this is a great book. The way in which Whaley dealt with how we try to create meaning in our lives in the face of trauma, grief, death, disappointment, disillusionment – all of those common life crestfalls – is especially poignant through the well-spoken mouthpiece of a seventeen-year-old boy. Because yeah, we’ve all read books about grief and just how the hell you deal with it, but Whaley has added a totally unique and original voice to that thematic oeuvre. The sad and hopeless ways in which these characters try to escape – from a situation, from a town – and ultimately return, albeit altered in some way, was bleak and resonant with the truth of small town America. Even though these are all serious Debbie Downer topics, Whaley is able to examine them through the lens of a snarky, witty seventeen-year-old boy who is cautiously hopeful for the future despite being prematurely jaded. Even though this book is obviously high, HIGH quality, for whatever reason it didn’t totally suck me in. I appreciated and enjoyed it, but at a bit of a distance. Still, this is a stunning bit of work especially for a first-time author. I’m almost afraid to see what he’ll come up with next.
I knew what song I wanted to pair this book with almost immediately. A couple months ago I was lucky enough to go see The Mountain Goats live, and if you ever get the chance to do the same, do it. John Darnielle is an unbelievable singer/songwriter/poet/comedian, and seeing him was probably one of the most downright enjoyable live music experiences I have ever had. Even though I had never heard “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace” before, it haunted me long after the show was over. So, this one is for you, Cabot Searcy.
Where I got it: the library