24 August 2011

Anticipated Arcs: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

My experience of Jack Gantos consists almost entirely of Rotten Ralph. I haven't read the Jack Henry books, and I have only gotten as far as borrowing Joey Pigza. It was returned unread, another victim of a hydra-esque TBR pile. I mention all this because Gantos' latest book, Dead End in Norvelt, features a character named, funnily enough, Jack Gantos. But this middle-grade story bears almost no resemblance to the one he told in his compelling YA autobiography Hole in My Life--unless you compare a summertime grounding to a prison term. So I am at a bit of a loss when reflecting how the new book compares to his previous fiction (naughty red cat aside,) and utterly flummoxed if I try to match it to his actual life story. So let's examine "Norvelt" on its own merits.

The story takes place over the course of two months in the summer of 1962. Jack Gantos is the only child of a couple who might very well become Archie and Edith Bunker when they retire. They live in a Pennsylvania town called Norvelt, a cooperative social experiment created after the Great Depression and championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, after whom the town is (re)named. Grounded almost as soon as vacation starts, Jack finds himself hired out by his mother to elderly neighbor Miss Volker, a woman who doubles as coroner and obituary writer for the local paper. But her hands are so crippled by arthritis that she needs to dip them in hot paraffin just to regain temporary dexterity. She dictates her obituaries to Jack, concluding each with a history lesson which is sometimes relevant to the deceased, but usually is just a chance to pontificate about forgetting the lessons learned from history. Add to that: a best friend whose father runs the local funeral parlor, an invasion by a group of surly Hell's Angels, constant nose-bleeds, an inexplicably loaded Japanese WWII rifle, some human-deer interaction reminiscent of The Queen, (but funnier,) a never-ending supply of Landmark Biography references, a twelve-year old who drives a car, and a retiree who rides a tricycle. That goes only some of the way towards explaining how completely off the wall this book is.

Thankfully, Gantos maintains a sense of nostalgia which allows the reader to laugh at the ensuing wackiness in the context of an era so different from today--as opposed to just being weird for weird's sake. Although I'm pretty sure there is some of that, too, since I don't know which part of the book is factual and which he completely made up. Not quite historical fiction, not quite autobiography, not quite postmortem for an America that is long-gone, Dead End in Norvelt is definitely one of the funnier and more unusual books you are likely to read.

Reviewed from an Advance Readers Copy. Dead End in Norvelt--coming your way September 13, 2011.

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