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Sunday, March 30, 2008

THE SHADOW YEAR

By Jeffrey Ford

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Morrow. 289 pp. $25.95

Momentum generated by atmosphere and vivid characters carries the reader of Jeffrey Ford's new novel a long way. It's the mid-1960s -- or so one surmises from certain details: LBJ is president, but hippy vibes have yet to waft into the Long Island town where the story is set. That story centers on a family that is classically dysfunctional -- a dad who is rarely available, a mom who drinks herself into nightly stupors, grandparents who step into the breech as best they can -- but that, true to its time, functions fairly well just the same.

The kids cope with adult fecklessness by playing pranks and collaborating on an alternate world: Botch Town, their homemade variation on Plasticville or a Lionel train village. Kept in the family's basement and populated by clay models of neighbors, friends and enemies, Botch Town is a kind of running soap opera produced by the unnamed narrator's older brother, Jim, with occasional and spooky help from their younger sister, Mary. Jim is Botch Town's nominal groundskeeper, but it's Mary -- along with her alter ego, a boy named Mickey -- who can move the residents into positions they turn out to have assumed in real life as well. The narrator himself is a sixth-grade nerd with a notebook, which he intends "to fill . . . with the lives of my neighbors, creating a Botch Town of my own between two covers."

There's a lot to write about: a prowler, the disappearance of a neighbor boy and the death of an old man. A Mister Softee driver has promised a free sundae of monstrous proportions to any kid who collects a whole set of "Softee cards," but he may have removed every copy of one particular card from the distribution pile. A sinister character known as Mr. White seems bent on harming children. After being fired, a dotty school librarian walks around a baseball diamond muttering to himself.

As the novel switches between actual incidents involving these people and changes in the configuration of their effigies in Botch Town, an eerie tension takes hold. The prose deepens one's sense of foreboding. Take this chapter-opening passage, in which Ford unforgettably evokes the season: "The days sank deeper into autumn, rotten to their cores with twilight. The bright warmth of the sun only lasted about as long as we were in school, and then once we were home, an hour later, the world was briefly submerged in a rich honey glow, gilding everything from the barren branches of willows to the old wreck of a Pontiac parked alongside the Hortons' garage. In minutes the tide turned, the sun suddenly a distant star, and in rolled a dim gray wave of neither here nor there that seemed to last a week each day."

Ford has won an Edgar award for mystery writing and been nominated for a Nebula for science fiction, which may reflect an impatience with the restrictions of genre. The Shadow Years takes the shape of a mystery (who is Mr. White, and what is he up to?), but it also has supernatural elements (especially Mary/Mickey's ability to influence actual events by moving around those clay figures in the basement), while at the same time it scrutinizes its pivotal family with almost sociological rigor. It all works, I think, except for one thing: too much contrivance in what eventually happens to Mr. White. This is a common problem in fiction, especially novels on the sensationalistic end of the spectrum. The setup is so pregnant with drama that almost no plausible resolution can do it justice.

In this case, though, the letdown is forgivable because Ford does so many things well. He makes the drunken mother not just another lush (she likes to believe she reads herself to sleep rather than passing out on the sofa each night, and the kids often place an open book on her lap after she nods off). And he gets across that one of the most unsettling things happening to this family is that the kids are beginning to pull apart from one another, that Botch Town will not be a joint project much longer.

Doomed though it may be, Botch Town is one of the most enthralling places I've visited in a long time.

-- Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor, and the mysteries editor, of Book World.


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