Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Featured Book: Goving Bovine

Going Bovine by Libba Bray won the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award. And since I believe the Printz (and similar awards for children/YA lit.) should always be about getting into the hands of young readers books those readers will love to read (and will make them want to read more), Bovine is a worthy selecion for the prize.

I admit, I was wary of Bovine at first, because I didn’t know how much a novel by Bray, best known for her Gemma Doyle Trilogy, would appeal to male readers, especially adolescent male readers.  But those familiar with Bray’s larger body of work, which includes stories about the band Cheap Trick and the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, won’t be surprised that Bovine is a quirky, random, twisted adventure with a cast of misfits, complete with its very own mad scientist. In short, it’s exactly the kind of story many adolescent boys might be interested in.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray
Delacorte Press, 2009
Cover art by Yuan Lee

Bovine opens on a moody, apathetic, and angst-ridden burnout named Cameron, who recounts a traumatic near-death childhood experience on the It’s a Small World After All attraction at Disney World. And whether it’s because Cameron is so young when it happens or simply because he’s listless by nature, the brush with death does nothing to spark a zest for life in him. Now sixteen, he goes through the motions at school, taking no initiative, and putting in as little effort as possible in everything he does, other than smoking weed and listening to Great Tremolo records (mostly so he can make fun of the artist). Cameron also fails to demonstrate much love or respect for his family. He suspects his dad cheats on his mom. He feels betrayed by his twin sister, who now runs with the popular crowd at school--the crowd by which Cameron feels tortured. He hates his job at Buddha Burger. He lazes about the house. And he smokes pot.

In short, the opening is not atypical of a YA novel. Other than the Disney World incident, of course.

But then things start getting weird. Cameron loses control of his faculties, even punching popular Chet (who happens to be his sister’s boyfriend) in the stomach. Inadvertently.

This, understandably, earns Cameron counseling and drug therapy.

Then come the fire giants. That’s right. FIRE GIANTS, raining fire from the sky. And a dark-armored knight coming after him with a sword.


Then, to the horror of his mom and sister, Cameron writhes on the floor in terror as the toaster starts on fire and the giants come after him again.

And this, understandably, lands Cameron in the hospital. Poking, prodding, and MRI-ing ensue.

Finally, we learn that Cameron has Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)—better known as MAD COW DISEASE. That’s right. MAD COW disease. Hence the title—Going Bovine.  CJD is a degenerative neurological disorder—incurable and fatal.  Common symptoms—memory loss, personality changes. Hallucinations.

While in the hospital, awaiting his fate, a punk-rock angel named Dulcie (who he’s seen previously at Buddha Burger) explains that a scientist name Dr. X, who has traveled through time, unwittingly unleashed the evil that that is actually killing Cameron (not CJD).  She gives him a bracelet (a Disney World park pass) that will temporarily overpower the crippling effects of his disease (while the bands of the bracelet disappear over time) so that he can travel the country in search of Dr. X, saving himself (and the planet in the process). And, oh yeah—he’s supposed to take his diminutive and hypochondriac roommate along with him. 

What follows can best be described as Life on Mars (the original British version) meets Catcher in the Rye meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Scott Pilgrim meets Don Quixote.  The story is filled with mythological and classical literature references (appropriate since Cameron’s mom taught classics and mythology before she had children), as well as fictional pop-culture references (like a bizarro-universe of our own pop culture from the last thirty or forty years), including an MTV-type network, a Carson Daily-like character, a Grateful Dead-esque band, and a Star Wars-mimicking movie franchise called Star Fighter). 

But the story also uses familiar settings like New Orleans and Disney World (where the story both begins and ends), but distorts them in a way (especially for readers who are familiar with the real settings) so as to make them dreamlike—or nightmare like. 

What emerges from this odd premise is a surprising, often hilarious, and sometimes touching story that tiptoes along the narrow, fragile line between reality and fantasy. We wonder, throughout the journey, what is real? What is an hallucination? But we realize that it almost doesn’t matter. Because Cameron slowly, reluctantly, but completely comes to appreciate life and living for the first time ever—an appreciation he didn’t gain from his first near-death experience as a child.

Recommended for boys ages 15-18.