Thursday, May 20, 2010

Don't Be a Schmuck

Here’s the skinny on all you really need to know: The Goats is a great book. There, now go read it. But maybe you want to know what it’s about, and maybe after you hear what it’s about you’ll think twice about reading it. After all, that’s what I did when I was in high school. But it turns out, I was a schmuck who wouldn’t know how to find a good book if it hit me upside the head. Don’t be a schmuck.

When I was in middle school, I read pretty much nothing but science fiction and fantasy books. I read Tolkien and Terry Brooks, time traveling books by Simon Hawke, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series, Robert Heinlein and Harry Harrison. But somewhere along the line, I ran out of steam. I would go to the bookstore* and look at the sf/fantasy aisle, and sink with disappointment. All the covers looked the same: they either had a picture that looked as much like Star Wars as possible, or a picture that looked as much like Dungeons and Dragons** as possible. I got angry and frustrated—the covers looked boring, like I could smell the stale plots, the clichéd characters, and the conventional worldbuilding. I knew I wanted something different.

What never occurred to me was that stale plots, clichéd characters, and conventional worldbuilding are some of the big pitfalls of genre fiction. I mean, set conventions about what happens, who’s involved, and where a story takes place are the definition of genre. I never thought to look at books about real life because, um, I thought they would be boring. What I didn’t realize was that just because my life seemed boring to me didn’t mean that real life is boring. It didn’t even mean that my life was boring. For example, I went to summer camp. I was an outcast at summer camp. I suffered pranks at summer camp. Despite this, I think I took one look at Brock Cole’s The Goats when it first came out, and didn’t even get past the cover.*** I just thought, who wants to read about real stuff?****

Wow, was I a jackass. Luckily for me, and for the rest of us, FSG has re-issued an anniversary edition of The Goats. Here’s how The Horn Book review summarized the plot of this book:

In the dead of night a boy and a girl are stripped of all clothing and marooned on an island by their campmates. Socially maladjusted, they have been designated camp "goats" in what others perceive to be a harmless prank, intending to rescue them in the morning. The boy and girl escape from the island, however…

And they are determined to never return to the camp. Instead they set out to escape. And isn’t that what we all want to do, at some time or another? Isn’t that one of the reasons we like fantasy? To escape? Wasn’t that really what interested me in stories of the fantastic—-to escape my understanding of my life, myself, as inherently mundane?

Look, I can’t really convey to you how great Cole’s book is. He really capitalizes on the plot, taking beyond the back cover description into fresh, new places on the page, places close in to experiences of rejection, friendship, and facing the unknown. His characters are fully-formed and interesting. They are smart, resourceful, and fragile all at once. Cole’s writing probes the corners of his character’s fears, their resolve, their dreams, but also the nuances of place and time. This is an extremely well-crafted novel, with lots of heart, and, above all, it doesn’t treat the reader like an idiot. It pushes and tugs at you as you read—makes you ask questions of the book, and of yourself.

So, don’t be a schmuck. Be willing to look anywhere for a good book. Be especially willing to look at books that don’t blow smoke up your ass, books that allow you to feel small about yourself, allow you to wallow in some perception that your life is mundane, ordinary, not worth telling. Instead, pick up a book like The Goats. It’ll kick you in the rear, make you take a look around, maybe make you rethink your position on what makes a good story—even what about you makes for a good story.

*Yes, I’m a codger. This was before the internet, and I didn’t have access to a great bookstore. Which is not to say I didn’t grow up near a really good one: Oxford Books in Atlanta, GA. But I wasn’t able to get there as easily as the dinky Waldenbooks or Crown bookstore at the mall. In college I discovered the Science Fiction and Mystery bookstore, also in Atlanta, which was good, but didn’t last into this century, as far as I know. Also, in college, the introduction of the trade paperback, rather than the mass market paperback, made finding good books lots easier. This may seem weird, but the size thing was quickly used to distinguish books that weren’t the typical genre stuff, and that was my cue, because I’ve always been drawn to the unusual...

**Let me be the first to stand proud and say I was a big fan of D&D. Okay, I’ll let my freak flag fly: AD&D, 1st & 2nd editions, thank you very much. I was a big fan of tabletop RPGs in general, but I didn’t want to read a book that seemed like it was just somebody else’s D&D adventure. Know what I mean?

***In my defense, it had a really, really bad cover. Like a 1970’s Bobbsey Twins-ish cover, fully painted, with dorky, generic kids looking at something. Luckily, FSG (the publisher) has used Cole’s original painting for the re-issue's cover. Painted, yes, but of a landscape, no people—an image at once wistful, mysterious, and sinister. Of course, marketing folks can’t get everything right: there’s this obnoxious banner across the bottom with a vague quote (“a powerfully gripping work. –Booklist”), the whole of which seems to abruptly break the power of the image.

****I did read good stuff, even if by accident. I read Pride & Prejudice because my first girlfriend said she liked it lots. On the other hand, when I got out of college and picked up my old copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemmingway, I realized I had made a big mistake not reading that thing. I mean, yes it’s an “important book” in American literature (whatever that may mean), and yes it kicks ass, but I also realized it’s a very sexy book. In fact, if I had paid a lot more attention in high school, I would have realized that the whole of literature is obsessed with sex. Which is not necessarily why you should read, say, The Canterbury Tales, but it sure as hell would have piqued my interest had I known that in 10th grade.


MarkLWilliams said...

Hmm... quite a good review. I wasn't worried about being schmuck this evening -- or even a schmendrick! -- until now...

david elzey said...

this truly is a fantastic book and i'm only sorry i didn't think to review it myself over the last couple of years!

i have seen versions of thes book with truly ugly covers, which is sad (a) because we know covers can keep some readers away and (b) because brock cole is a brilliant picture book writer and illustrator as well.

ah well. good review for a deserving book.

Anonymous said...


Heather said...

I read it this weekend based upon your review and found it really intriguing. A good plot with interesting characters. Thanks for the suggestion.

david elzey said...

fyi, i just saw this weekend that this is being re-released with a new cover. can't remember where i saw it now, but it looks *very* contemporary now.