Thursday, January 19, 2012

Drop-Dead Funny: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

"The reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again."

With this salient rewording of the well-known aphorism, Jack Gantos states his theme and is off on another of his memoir-cum-fiction tales. In this one his main character is Jack Gantos, or "Gantos boy," as this Jack is known to most of the neighbors in the dead-ending small town of Norvelt.

Jack is ready for a summer vacation of 1960s boyhood adventures as the novel opens, playing at a bit of combat fantasy at twilight with his father's forbidden Japanese souvenir binoculars and rifle. When he takes a pretend potshot at the evil black-and-white-movie Jap soldiers on the giant screen of the nearby drive-in theatre, the rifle actually fires a chambered round, the neighborhood is alarmed, and his mom is livid. Jack is busted, but he buys his mom's silence by agreeing to tend her prize corn patch, the source of money for the poor of Norvelt whom his social Democrat mother collects. But then his libertarian dad orders him to mow down the corn so that he can prepare the field as a runway for his dream, an assemble-it-yourself war surplus J-3 airplane. Jack is caught in the crossfire between his parents' clashing ideals and winds up grounded for the summer.

Luckily, a bit of respite is offered when his mother assigns him the role of household helper to their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Volker, whose passion is keeping her promise to Eleanor Roosevelt, founder of their egalitarian town, to chronicle its life. Mrs. Volker was named coroner and historian of Norvelt by Eleanor herself, and fulfils this passion through her job of writing obituaries for the local newspaper. Her hands crippled by arthritis, the crusty chronicler makes Jack her amanuensis, making him take down and type her obits, filled with tidbits of local color and history, and assisting her with her medical examiner duties whenever someone dies within Norvelt's town limits.

"Hurry" called out Mrs. Volker, waving one of her claws at me. "I just got a call about another possible dead person--a Norvelt original. I got a call about Mrs. Dubicki over at house number C-27. My spotter hasn't seen her for a week."

"We'll have to look in the windows, and then we'll have no other choice--you'll have to sneak into the house."

"What if she's alive and recognizes me?" I said fearfully. "She'll call the cops and I'll be grounded forever only in a jail cell."

"Hmmmm" she said, thinking out loud. "It would be best if you wore a disguise."

"I have my Halloween costume from last year," I said.

"Of what?" she asked.

"The Grim Reaper," I said.

She threw back her head and laughed her cackling laugh. "You are my perfect partner," she said grandly. "Mrs. Dubicki is going to see the Grim Reaper sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner."

So Jack, black-clad as the Reaper, finds himself poking the recumbent but not-quite-dead-yet Mrs. Dubicki with his fake ax, and his drab summer takes a macabre but exciting turn for the better.

And strangely, there are a lot of deaths among the elderly female founders that summer, providing Jack with both an welcome escape from spending his days reading the Landmark American history series in his bedroom and up-close and personal encounters with the work of the Grim Reaper himself. Then Jack's summer picks up more excitement when a visiting Hell's Angel is flattened by a truck and he is invited by his friend Bunny Huffer, daughter of the local undertaker, to view the amazing remains of the tattooed, nearly two-dimensional body. Bunny's father, obviously intuiting that the town's declining population makes his business a dead-end job, opts to buy up the all of the deceased's original Norvelt cottages, hiring Jack's jack-of-all-trades father to haul them off to sell to a more thriving community.

Then houses in Norvelt start bursting into flames all over town, and rumors fly that the sudden succession of deaths of old ladies in Norvelt is death, not by natural causes, but by poison, and that the nightly fires are also part of the plot to kill off the town itself. Jack's mega-boring summer is suddenly filled with high drama when Mrs. Volker is arrested for murder by means of poisoned Girl Scout cookies packed in the meals on wheels that she has been sending to the town's elderly widows.

Gantos' novels are like no other, filled with drop-dead wacky fun, seemingly chaotic, but somehow pulling themselves together brilliantly, like kaleidoscope glass which suddenly falls into a meaningful and beautiful pattern as it turns. His latest, Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011) is no exception to the pattern established in his notable Jack Henry Adventures and his poignant tales of a good kid who tries to make sense out of his ADHD life, in the Newbery and National Book Award-recognized Joey Pigza series.

Serious and hilarious, fast-paced yet reflective, untidy but emerging as solid coming-of-age stories, this novel easily takes its place within Gantos' formidable body of work. His Twain-like boyhood stories appeal to reluctant readers and bookophiles, fans of the Wimpy Kid series and followers of Gary Schmidt's and Gary Paulsen's premise-driven character studies alike. Gantos is an original, a literary treasure, and this one belongs on every kid's summer (or anytime) reading list.

"Memorable in every way," says Publishers Weekly, who named it to their Best Children's Fiction list of 2011. Horn Book does the same and says "This is a richly layered, semi-autobiographical tale, an ode to a time and place, to history, and the power of reading."

A preview of Dead End in Norvelt can be seen here.

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