Adolescent Flight of Fancy
Monday, August 14, 2006
THE WRONG HANDS
By Nigel Richardson
Knopf. 258 pp. $15.95
Is 14 the worst of all possible ages? Looking back over my own life, I think it might have been. At 12 I was still content with my bike, the Hardy Boys and the Boy Scouts, and by 16 I had advanced to girls, cars, beer and related pleasures, but I remember 14 as a black hole of confusion and frustration. (My best year was 40, but that's another story.)
London journalist Nigel Richardson's first novel, "The Wrong Hands," billed as appealing to young adults, concerns the adventures of Graham Sinclair, a "weedy-looking" Yorkshire lad of 14 whose problems make my boyhood seem like peaches and cream. To start with, there are his hands. They are very large, and his fingers are webbed. His classmates laugh at him and call him things like Spakky (don't ask why) and Flipper. All poor Graham can do is keep his ungainly hands stuffed in his pockets as much as possible.
There's also his secret, which is the heart of the novel. I'm going to reveal it because alert readers will figure it out by Page 48, and it's spelled out for the rest of us on Page 81. Graham, thanks to his huge hands, can fly. He discovered this talent at age 7 when he fell off a cliff and never hit bottom, but his mum persuaded him to keep quiet because exposure could only lead to trouble. Mum was right. Early in the book, the 14-year-old Graham tries to impress a girl with his skill but instead crash-lands on top of her, whereupon she calls the police and he's branded a sex offender. This disgrace causes his dad to drink even more, Mum to further surrender her fragile grip on reality and Graham to be sent off to London to live with Uncle George, who owns a shop where he sells pianos.
More adventures follow. A plane crashes into a building, and Graham saves a child on an upper floor. The newspapers, although not yet knowing how he reached that upper floor, hail him as a hero. Then a really sexy babe named Jennifer -- Graham calls her "classy," as opposed to women back in Yorkshire, who are "clodhoppers" -- learns his secret. She befriends the boy, but they are at cross purposes. He is consumed by rather vague sexual fantasies, and Jennifer's more concrete fantasies have to do with using him to get rich. An occasional glimpse of Jennifer's bra is of far more urgent concern to Graham than making millions by soaring above London.
A certain paranoia, perhaps justified, inhabits Graham's view of the world. Nobody loves him; everyone's after him. Sex crimes are in progress in London, the police decide he's a fiend, and the newspapers turn against him: "A much-loved national figure is being sought in connection with the Popsock Perv murder inquiry." The hunted lad cries out, "I was a freako and a perv." At one point, he resolves to light out for the territory: "I was getting the hell out of this place, away from prats and dullness and my mad mother." But will he have the courage to escape? Or will he hurry back to the bedside of poor dotty Mum? It's not easy being a boy who can fly.
Richardson tells all this with style -- "The Wrong Hands" is far better written than most novels for adults. His plot has many nice twists, and his prose sparkles, particularly in the scenes where Graham soars above London: "The chopper was still there, somewhere in the background, but I had got away, and now I laughed, laughing to the moon, which popped up on my left like a big white half-eaten peach with no visible means of support." As a novel intended for readers in their early teens, "The Wrong Hands" has more references to "snot" than the adult reader may think necessary. And Graham's fantasies are rather basic ("I was a scientist with a supermodel girlfriend").
So what's next for the Yorkshire Icarus? Will the nasty cops nail him as the Popsock Perv? Will seductive Jennifer whisk him off to New York? Or will the good lad return to the Mum who needs and loves him? You -- or your 12-and-up -- will have to read the book to find out, and you could do worse. To think oneself a teen misfit and yet somehow to soar above one's tormenters is a near-universal fantasy, and Richardson handles his version of it well. Most readers will be glad that the author leaves open the possibility of further flights by the boy with big hands.