Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Reading Through History: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (2011)

Jack Gantos, the hero of this semi-autobiographical novel set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, has the whole summer ahead of him when he makes two stupid choices. First, he shoots off his father’s Japanese rifle in the backyard and scares the whole neighborhood half to death. Then he angers his mother by mowing down her corn crop, a transgression she does not forgive despite the fact that Jack’s own father told him to do it. Grounded for the entire summer, Jack’s only opportunities to leave the house come about when Miss Volker, an elderly neighbor, calls for him to help her write obituaries for the original Norvelt residents who seem to be dying one right after the other.

Jack Gantos is an interesting guy, and only he could have written this strange, meandering tale of life in a dying town. Since I listened to this story as an audiobook, which Gantos himself narrates, there was no escaping Gantos’s voice, or mistaking his tone, which is mainly sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. The main character’s entire outlook on life, and his ways of expressing himself, reminded me of many twelve-year-old boys I know, even though their lives are totally different from Jack’s. The many references to blood, guts, weapons, historical battles, and dead bodies also encouraged me to think of this book as one that will mainly appeal to middle school boys who enjoy being grossed out, rather than to girls, or even to very many adults.

I wanted to read this book because it won the Newbery, and I had certain expectations about the writing based on that shiny sticker on the front cover. I was surprised, therefore, when the writing was not that impressive. Gantos uses lots and lots of adverbs, to the point of distraction from what he is trying to convey. He also likes to substitute certain words for the word “said,” especially “ordered” and “revealed,” each of which appears many times more often in this book than any other I have ever read. Once I noticed these quirks in the writing, I couldn’t stop noticing them, and they took over much of the reading experience for me. Also somewhat painful were the similes Gantos uses that seemed either unnecessary or irrelevant. Here’s just one example, from page 216: “A cloud of smoke hung over his head like a cartoon thought bubble full of swirling, unformed thoughts.” It seems like Gantos uses figurative language because he feels like he should, and not for any particular purpose that serves his story.

This book is undoubtedly interesting. It takes place in a real town established by the National Industrial Recovery Act, which is something I didn’t really know about, and it explores the role of history in the lives of its residents, and in Jack’s own life. A murder mystery, a dead Hell’s Angel, baseball, and parental conflict all figure heavily into the plot, and the story itself comes together nicely, with some surprise twists and turns along the way. I can see why the Newbery committee believed it was distinctive; I just think it’s too bad that the writing seems so disjointed and unpolished compared with other Newbery winners. I think I would have enjoyed the book much more had the Newbery hype not raised my expectations so high.

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