Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Whirligig by Paul Fleischmann
It's lucky that Paul Fleischman's Whirligig is short, because it starts so poorly that had it been a longer book I probably would have set it down in the interests of saving myself time. That would have been a shame. After its weak opening, Whirligig settles into a rich and moving story that achieves moments of real beauty.
In the opening scene, Brent Bishop is headed for a party where he intends to impress the cool kids and ask out a very popular girl, hoping to increase his value on the social status market. You can see why I might have been disappointed. At the party Brent (who, unaware of the black and white chess theme, has arrived dressed inappropriately) is mocked by the cool party host, and rejected, publicly and loudly, by the girl he wants to date. It all comes across as a cheap scene from 90210 (except that it's set in Chicago).
The tone of the novella changes, however, when Brent leaves the party, both drunk and emotionally devestated. On the highway, he decides the only answer, the only way to take back control, is to kill himself and so he closes his eyes and lets go of the wheel. He doesn't succeed in killing himself, though. Instead, the accident he causes kills a young woman, Lea, in another car.
In the ensuing hearings the victim's mother asks for neither money from Brent or his parents nor punishment for Brent, but only that he travel by bus to the four corners of the country and build and erect a whirligig (her grandfather had made her whirligigs when she was a child) in each place, in memorium of Lea's lost life. Brent, to the chagrin of his parents, eagerly agrees to the trip and the task, as it will give him a chance to atone for his tragic mistake and to escape a life that has become oppressive. Nothing that happened before the accident seems to matter anymore and as Brent travels the country he rediscovers meaning in his life through the art of building the whirligigs, and the connections he makes to other people.
Some of these connections he is not even aware of. Brent's story is interspersed with the stories of people who Brent will never meet but who are affected by his whirligigs. Each finds a different metaphor in the art-objects which helps put his or her life in perspective, and these stories beautifully illustrate Fleischman's primary theme that people's lives are connected in ways well beyond their knowledge or understanding.
Unfortunately, Brent's journey is marred by Fleischman's cast of supporting characters who are all created to illustrate a political point. Everyone from Brent's previous life, including his parents, is shallow, closed-minded, and obsessed with material possessions and social status. Not only is this difficult to believe, it's unfair, especially to Brent's parents who have nearly lost a son, have just become aware of how deeply disturbed he is, and yet still only manage to see the monetary and social implications of his tragedy. At the same time, everyone that Brent meets on his cross-country voyage is a hip, open-minded, deep-thinking bohemian. Don't get me wrong, I subscirbe to Fleischman's political outlook. I think bohemian artist types are usually better people overall than investment bankers and suburban social ladder-climbers. But still, in real life there are interesting people everywhere. Likewise there are jerks and troubled people everywhere. Sometimes these are even the same people. Beyond that, anyone who has ever travelled, especially, like Brent, with a Greyhound bus ticket, knows just how vulnerable one is to hucksters and criminals. Brent never comes across anyone unethical. In real life, deep-thinking bohemians are sometimes also addicted to heroine or emotionally unstable pathological liars. But everyone Brent meets is a great person, through and through. Fleischman's message is that being free of upper-middle class social expectations will make you completely free as a human. This, of course, is a fairy tale. Brent doesn't have to struggle with a lot of the human complexity that one would expect him to encounter on his journey, and the book suffers for it.
Still, Whirligig is rich enough in its other aspects that it's easy, once you're immersed in Brent's story, to overlook its flaws.
Crossposted at Critique de Mr Chompchomp