"The Kryptonite Kid," a first novel by Joseph Torchia, consists of letters written to Superman by Jerome Chariot, a lonely 7-or 8-year-old Catholic boy, and his friend Robert Sipanno. Through the letters, we are told the story of a young boy who finds the real world unpleasant, and for good reason. It is ruled by adults who miss the point. There is Jerry's mother, who cries a lot, trapped in a marriage with an alcoholic husband, and his brother, Buster, an unattractive adolescent bent on spending his time on the couch with his girl friend Mary Louise. There's his sister, a nun who prays most of the time, and worst of all, Sister Mary Justin, his teacher at Catholic School.
It's no wonder Jerome wants to be super, to fly away from them in a shot and to return at appropriate moments to urinate on their heads, especially the thick head of Sister Mary Justin. Of course, the adults are worried about Jerome's Superman fantasies and try to save him in the wrong-headed ways of grown-ups who have lost the sense of the child in themselves. Primarily they beat and humiliate him out of the fear that they are losing him to his dreams.
The only adult who does understand him is Mrs. Bacchio, who sells Superman comics to Jerome and Robert, and even reads them herself. But she is sleeping with Mr. Durelli, who delivers the papers, so Jerome is forbidden to see her.
The book is divided into five parts, the five dimensions of the Superman stories, which catalogue Jerome's deeply sad and growing separation from the real world. In Superman mythology, the fifth dimension, which is the title of the final dark section of this book, is where Mr. Mxyzptlk lives. He is an imp who comes to earth to cause mischief, and the only way he can be sent back to the fifth dimension is to make him say Mxyzptlk backwards. In the fifth dimension, Jerome is trying to work this magic by saying his own name Chariot backwards, rearranging the letters to the successful combination of Torchia, his maker. It suggests an interesting but inconclusive relationship between the author and his character. iTherein is the problem with thiis well-conceived and promising first novel.
The characters are limited by the view of a 7- or 8-year-old boy, but we could know them better simply by Jerome's reporting more, even though he doesn't understand the significance of his reporting. We see the father drinking in a bar, beating Jerome, expecially when the boy's Superman fantasies intrude on his father's life and disturb his sense of order. But that's not enough in order to feel the kind of compassion we must for this father who figures largely in the end of the book. The letters are warm and funny, often touching, but I was bothered by the language, the misspellings and artifices used to make Jerome seem young. The tone of the letters should suffice for that. I found the first half of the book monotonous, partly because of the intruding nature of the language, but largely because the characters are not sufficiently complicated.
The conception of the book is impressive, inventively based on our knowledge of myths -- Egyptian, Greek, Christian -- and concerned with how we have applied this history to suit our own landscape. The terrible impossibility of Superman reflects the culture of instant escape and satisfaction that we have created. There are wonderful moments when the concrete details of fiction become myth. For example, the Kryptonite Kid, as Robert calls Jerome, hides all the Kryptonite in his hometown so that Superman can safely visit and then has bad dreams about his own real power over his hero. The book reaches a stunning climax, absolutely familiar and moving given our understanding of myths and our knowledge of psychology. But the texture and development of the book are simply not equal to its conception.
I admire Torchia for what he has done in capturing the children of our culture whose indirect defense is escape into a world where they can fly.
The book ends with "The And" -- Jerome's misspelling of The End -- an optimistic conclusion to a respectable first novel.