Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley

God. I'm not even sure I remember how to blog. Let alone properly unreview/gush-over/recommend a book. My personal blog has become the Mongolian Steppe of web pages, the only content on there stuff that other people made. Wait. Does that metaphor even make sense? Probably not.

Anyway, this isn't about me. This is about Corey's book. Before I get into my reaction, let's let Goodreads put you in the mood:

Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen's senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone's eating "Lazarus burgers." But as absurd as the town's carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It's about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.

So ... this book came to me out of left field. It was recommended to me, like much of the best un-categorizable YA I read, by Andrew Smith, author of ... oh you better know by now (for SEO: he wrote: Ghost Medicine, In the Path of Falling Objects, The Marbury Lens, Stick, Passenger, Winger, and more mad ones to come). Where Things Come Back starts off a little disjointed. Cullen is from Arkansas (I like to pronounce that as "our-kansas" in my head, much like North and South Cackilacky for the Carolinas) which I'm pretty sure is a locale YA lit has never delved into. At least not that I've read. I'm not from there, but I live in the south, if not the exact poor, dead-end small town south that Cullen does, but still ... the setting gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, even if the plot left me wondering where in the world we might be going together.

Soon enough, the story veers into this odd tangent which is so off base from the rest of the tale, it feels like maybe you're slipping into some kind of lucid dream. It's influenced by this offshoot book of the bible, the Book of Enoch, which actually ties a little into something I've always been fascinated by (Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, which ties into Rastafarianism, and has a legend that says Menelik I and the Queen of Sheba brought the Ark of the Covenant out of Jerusalem into the mountains of Africa, where it supposedly still resides--but I digress), but also makes no sense in the context of the main plot-line ... for perhaps the first good half of the book.

But then ... pure brilliance. I can't really lay it all out here for you, without giving it away, but what I can say is that this book weaves together such disparate storylines with such a steady hand that all of a sudden, when you've spent the whole book spinning your wheels trying to figure out where it's all going, the threads come together into this beautiful stitch so intricate and well-laid it rivals Ipswich Lace.

Of course, there are also the wonderfully imagined characters, so full of authenticity they jump off the page at you. Not only Cullen and his dear best friend Lucas, but even the parents and the girlfriends and the strange guy who comes to town to convince everyone he's found an extinct woodpecker. Every single character in this book feels like a person you might know.

The writing is mostly straightforward, never leaning too far into the realm of prose for prose's sake, but there are also some really lovely, insightful passages. One of my favorites:

“We didn’t let them help us because we needed it, we let them help us because inside of humans is this thing, this unnamed need to feel as if we are useful in the world. To feel as if we have something significant to contribute. So, old ladies, make your casseroles and set them on doorsteps. And old men, grill your burgers and give them to teenagers with cynical worldviews. The world can’t be satisfied, but that need to fix it all can.”

Anyway, I could go on and on about this book, but I think it suffices to say I highly recommend it. Certain experts seem to agree. I read my copy on my Kindle, because when I heard about the book I had to have it instantly, but there are two killer covers (that I know of), which I assume apply to the hardcover and the trade paperback. I intend to pick up at least one of them some day.

For now, you can find John Corey Whaley:


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