The Wonder Years
BLACK SWAN GREEN
By David Mitchell
Random House. 294 pp. $23.95
After the sprawling scope and pyrotechnic style of his Booker Prize-nominated Cloud Atlas , David Mitchell could have delivered nothing more surprising than this charming, quiet novel about a 13-year-old boy. In 13 connected stories that take place in 1982, young Jason Taylor describes his perilous trek through schoolyard trials, his budding interest in girls and the simmering tension between his parents. Straddling the wonders of childhood and the anxieties of adulthood, he speaks to us in a voice that mingles insight and naiveté -- not too cute, not too slick. The result is a novel that's alternately nostalgic, funny and heartbreaking.
"It's all ranks, being a boy," Jason reminds us, "like the army." He lives cautiously, always attentive to shifting, unwritten rules about what to wear, how to greet friends, where to sit on the bus, what songs to like. For the young men of this little village in Worcestershire, England, life is governed largely by the dread of being thought gay. "Mind you," Jason tells us, "if they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in 'Black Swan Green Parish Magazine,' was me , they'd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone."
Being a sensitive boy with an interest in literature is fraught with risk ("Books're gay"), but Jason can't help studying everything around him, spinning his own Walter Mitty fantasies of adventure. Although we see only a few lines of his poetry -- nothing especially noteworthy -- his fresh insight into other people and his raw enthusiasm for the world endow this winding commentary with the joy of little revelations: "The lake in the woods was epic . Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in Fox's Glacier Mints."
Mitchell's previous work has shown how much language matters to him, and now he's created a character who lives and dies on the battlefield of words. Jason speaks with a heavy stammer -- the kind of disability, he realizes, that people still feel comfortable mocking, long after they've given up making fun of "cripples" and "spastics." ("It's easier to change your eyeballs than to change your nickname," he notes.) Every utterance offers the fresh danger of humiliation among a group of boys on the lookout for any sign of weakness or difference: "My billion problems kept bobbing up like corpses in a flooded city." Speaking is always an elaborate contest with the "hangman" in his mind, the demon who colonizes the alphabet, grabbing the letter "s" and then "n." Jason races ahead of each sentence, scanning for forbidden words and making quick substitutions before he gets snared in a contorted pause. "Reading dictionaries like I do helps you do these ducks and dives, but you have to remember who you're talking to. (If I was speaking to another thirteen-year-old and said the word melancholy to avoid stammering on sad, for example, I'd be a laughingstock 'cause kids aren't s'posed to use adult words like melancholy.")
As you can see here, there's nothing pathetic or pitiable about Jason, nothing alien or exotic about his own curious incidents of the dog in the night-time. Through an extraordinary exercise of will and intelligence, he manages to keep his disability largely hidden, but avoiding ridicule is exhausting work, as anybody who's been 13 will remember: "Trees're always a relief, after people," he says.
Still, it's people who interest him most: the witch in the woods who helps him when he hurts his ankle; his slick cousin Hugo, who teaches him how to smoke and shoplift; Dawn Madden, "who's a boy gone wrong in some experiment"; the handsome young man whose death ruins the Falklands War; the gypsies who raise the town's ire; even his parents, whose marriage frays over the course of the novel. In one of the most remarkable chapters, "Bridle Path," young Jason just wanders through the village, searching for a secret tunnel. Along the way he picks up the sounds and sights, the alliances and conflicts all around him. It's an apparently aimless riff that gradually overwhelms you with its reverence for the ordinary.
Mitchell makes all this look easy, but from the pen of anyone less gifted, these stories would turn precious, maudlin or dull. He has a perfect ear for that most calamitous year, the first of the teens, when we come face-to-face with the volatile nature of life. There's plenty of sadness in that discovery, of course, but humor, too, and he spins them together subtly in this touching novel. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.