04 October 2009

Rave Review: Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware

I've been waiting for this book to be published for what seems an awfully long time. As an enthusiastic fan of both Whales on Stilts and The Clue of the Linoleum Leiderhosen, knowing this book was in the works was sweet torture. Now that it's here, and I've read it, I sort of don't know what to make of it. For starters, what started as "M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales" has become "Pals in Perils," which to my way of reading consciously shifts the focus of the series away from Lily (the only one of the gang who is "ordinary",) to Jasper himself, the one old-fashioned enough to actually use the word "pal" in his day to day conversation.

But let me backtrack, for those who have not been following this series. Lily Gefelty, Katie Mulligan, and Jasper Dash are three friends who have shared an inordinate amount of crazy adventures. While Katie and Jasper are both stars of their own series of pulp adventure books (which allows author Anderson untold opportunity to lovingly poke fun at the genre,) Lily is just an ordinary girl distinguished mainly by floppy bangs and undying faith in her two friends. After fighting off an aquatic invasion in "Whales," and solving a mystery at a resort visited by other action series characters in "Leiderhosen," Lily, Katie, and Jasper investigate an art theft and the possible endangerment of a group of monks in "Flame Pits".

That's the straightforward plot summary. What it fails to relate is the sheer Sternsian ambition of this book. By focusing the story on Jasper Dash, star of a series that one suspects not many people are reading anymore, and the one character who even within this strange set-up has always seemed out of place, with his arcane expletives ("Saturn's rings!",) endorsement of a vile energy drink (Gargletine,) and technology worthy of Tom Swift, the absurdities to which Anderson can take this story are infinite. For starters, there is his description of Delaware as a mysterious land, which sounds more like Nepal than a Mid-Atlantic American state, although he manages to combine the two profiles with throw-away lines like:

"For one hundred years, Delaware has been cut off from the other states, isolated completely as a result of its overpriced and prohibitive interstate highway tolls. For one hundred years, almost no one has gone in or come out. Only the bravest of explorers have penetrated this exotic land."

Aside from playing with reality within the story--a reality which the characters themselves try to maintain (Katie is indignant at the suggestion of mountain ranges or dinosaurs in Delaware)--Anderson takes liberty with the format of the text, writing downwards to describe a great fall, or inserting pages from the seminal tourist book about Delaware: The There and Back Again Guide to Greater Delaware, which assures you, among other things, that any intrepid visitor will "catch very few of Delaware's disfiguring diseases." And always there is the narrator, who is not so much omniscient as chatty, sometimes diverting attention away from the action of the story with a self-conscious air of mischief and tongue so firmly lodged in cheek that it may never come out again. These playful stylistic touches made me think of experimental literature like Tristram Shandy or If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, where the act of reading the story is part of the story itself.

Allusions, of course, which will go flying straight over the heads of the 8 to 12 audience which this book is targeting. So where is the appeal? The appeal is in a mysterious original colony which is strangely lacking in vowels; or a vendor who chases our heroes for three days over a 15 cents debt; or a Stare-Eyes competition team with a coach who sounds like a sadistic hockey dad (or just the thought of a Stare-Eyes competition at all!) The appeal is in every crazy detail that Anderson crams into this smart, oh-so-clever book. While at times I thought the descriptions of the impossibly strange indigenous creatures of Delaware went on a bit too long, and the bickering between Jasper and Katie was sometimes more dull than droll, there is plenty of goofy fun and laugh-out loud moments (the face-off between the pacifist monks and the cliche-spouting Jersey gangsters is not to be missed) to carry the story. And the ending, where the ultra-square Jasper is heralded by Lily and Katie, is surprisingly touching. The moment doesn't last long, but it is a reminder that smart humor is never gratuitous. And M.T. Anderson has shown himself to be at his smartest when he is at his strangest.

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