Archive » May 18, 2006
By Shelly Lowenkopf
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A WHAT-DO-YOU-CALL-IT?
It is 1982 and you are stuck in the depths of Ms Thatcher’s England, living in a hopelessly small town, prisoner of unforgiving social striations. You do not have the aura or the brass to be among the social elite. You are not called by your first name or anything resembling an affectionate nickname. More often than not, you are Maggot, or worse.
You do your best to remain anonymous, lest your schoolmates oppress you even more than they do. You are hopelessly in love with Dawn, the rather sadistic girlfriend of a bully. Dawn scarcely notices you, but when she does it is often to laugh at some indignity her boyfriend has inflicted upon you.
You are rarely among the early choices when more popular schoolmates choose sides for remarkably dumb games, which, nevertheless, you feel you must enter lest you be considered a word that used to mean a cigarette but which now is emphatic in its homophobic intent.
Ah, what they would say if they knew your poetry was published regularly in the parish journal! But you have taken great pains to cover your tracks, using the pseudonym of Eliot Bolivar, taken from two of your heroes, T.S. Eliot and Simon Bolivar. Someone may possibly be on to your secret, an apparently distinguished older person, who is on your case about the responsibilities of telling the truth where things of a poetic nature are concerned.
If your poetic adventures were known, the teasing and social ostracism would become unbearable. Put that in context with you actually being seen standing in line for a movie with your mother, and the scar tissue would never wear away. Bad enough that some know about your visits to a speech therapist or that some of your teachers have agreed not to force you to read or make verbal presentations in class because of your tendency to stammer.
What you are at great pains to hide is the presence of that entity you’ve begun to think of as The Hangman, he who deliberately puts roadblocks in your way when words beginning with s or t or n come into play. Merciless with p-words, he is.
You go your 13-year-old way in the wary, suspicious, structured world about you, looking for clues, painfully aware of the things you do not yet know and yet need to know, trying to fit somewhere, doing your best to distinguish appearance from reality Your own family? Mom and Dad and Sis are nice enough – all pretty sharp. Hardly dysfunctional, but still, there are edges you can sense, changes looming.
Dad, for instance. You’ll hear Mum confront him with her discovery that he has taken out a considerable second mortgage on the home where you’ve lived all your life. And there’s Mum, herself. What’s this about her being offered a job in a prestigious gallery in another city? How will Dad react to that? And how will he react when he discovers that you have, during the course of one of those dumb games you allowed yourself to be drawn into, caused great damage to an Omega Seamaster wristwatch, worn by your paternal grandfather during his service in World War II?
You think you have all these goings-on tucked away beyond possibility of discovery by others. You even nourish dreams of muddling on until some magical future where the pressures won’t be so great. But what’s this? A new entity emerging within you, a presence even more insistent than The Unborn Twin who taunts your thoughts, teases you with responses you long to make but do not dare. The new entity, simply put, is Girls and your emerging awareness not only of the need to deal with them but with your perceptions of them.
You are Jason Taylor, but when your older sister talks about you, it is no longer Jason she speaks of, or even the more neutral “him”; it is The Thing. “It is The Thing’s turn to do the dishes.”
Take care, Jason Maggot Thing Taylor – you are being watched. David Mitchell is on to you. He is so on to you that he has you down on paper, your movements, fears, fantasies recorded with a deftness that is at times fearsome in its clarity. You are the focus of “Black Swan Green,” Mitchell’s new novel, published by Random House. There is no escaping his fine eye for detail, his ear for the language, his very literal passion for the depth and truth of feeling you are lectured about by one of your early mentors. David Mitchell will let you get away with using the word “ace” as an adjective to describe a situation or thing you find admirable, but he will quickly have your classmates on your case for using words or pop songs that have gone out of style.
It is no small thing to make a young person come to vibrant life. “Ellen Foster,” by Kaye Gibbons rushes to mind, propelled by the memorable opening, “When I was little, I would think of ways to kill my daddy.” So do “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” and not to forget the estimable “Great Expectations.” All four of these were innovative in one stylistic way or another and remain as splendid examples of the power behind the use of a first-person narrator.
The list could go on: “Tom Sawyer” was certainly no slouch, nor Bobbie Ann Mason’s “In Country,” and I know of more than one woman who has clung to her Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew books to comfort her in adulthood (and pass along to her children). The point I’m after here is one that Barnaby Conrad has made over the years with great emphasis (particularly after having passed along to me a novel by Elizabeth Berg in which the activities of a 13-year-old girl had us two old codgers in thrall). Conrad’s Law: Give us someone to root for and we will endure anything – even bad writing.
“Black Swan Green” gives us someone to root for from the get-go. In the process, David Mitchell gives us considerably more: anthropology, history, sociology. He also gives us story, the only artifice in his art being the structure – a year in a 13-year-old boy’s life, told in 13 chapters, most of which could stand alone as a short story. What trumps everything, however, is the universal presence of the author’s compassion, applied even to the bullies, thugs and churls who inhabit this eclectic ensemble cast.
Many of us have gone to great expense and even greater lengths to make palimpsests of our early teens years, overwriting them with mantras of explanations, forgiveness and worse – rationale. As adults – whatever that may mean – we tend to regard that time in our life as though it were a relative in a hospital or managed-care home. Some ingrained sense of duty demands courtesy visits, which we approach with anything but enthusiasm, looking at our watches, eager for an excuse to leave.
David Mitchell gets us back there with alacrity. He has done so with little or no trace of the remarkable control, the ongoing poetry and sensitivity manifest in every page. “Black Swan Green” is a bravura performance, enhanced by a continuing succession of surprises and discoveries. As you follow this wander-year of Jason Taylor through the backyards, gorse, hedges and spiky entanglements of a small town half a world and a quarter of a century away, you are brought face to face with yourself, learning the techniques of coping.
Jason is too modest to suggest it, so I will on his behalf: The ending payoff is nothing less than ace.
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