Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Mr. Cool: Mudshark by Gary Paulsen

This is the Principal. Would the custodian report to the faculty restroom with a large stick, safety goggles, and a respirator mask? And would whoever took the erasers from room two of three please return them and refrain from removing erasers in the future? And also, while it is loose, and in spite of what I said in the last announcement, the gerbil is not, per se, a wild animal and will not, repeat, will not attack. So please refrain from screaming or otherwise panicking should you see said gerbil.

Will Mud... Lyle Williams please report to the principal's office? Immediately.

When Lyle (a.k.a. Mudshark), so-called because of his incredibly cool agility and deadly skills at the local version of rugby, is summoned to the principal's office, the harried Mr. Wagner recruits his noted skills of observation and unerring recall at unraveling the ongoing mystery of the disappearing erasers, which is spreading to every classroom in the school. That issue would seem one of Mr. Wagner's lesser worries--there's a serious population explosion in the school's cycle-of-life crayfish experiment, and a renegade hamster apparently being pursued through the HVAC ducts 24/7 by AWOL teacher Mr. Patterson. And about what is going on in that faculty bathroom--don't even ask!

Mudshark is one of those inevitably cool kids, doted upon by the faculty and reverenced by his peers for his innate coolness, but his reputation is no accident. With his skills of observation honed by multitasking--rescuing his toddler triplet sisters from untoward encounters with electric outlets and tasty-looking lumps in the cat litter while seemingly reading everything he encounters and remembering everything he observes, Mudshark is that rare 'tweener boy--one who thinks.

Yes, he owed his speed and attention to detail to Kara, Sara, and Tara.

But the way he moved wasn't why Mudshark was cool.

Mudshark knew cool wasn't in how you moved or a name or clothes or whether or not you were asked to play on anyone's team.

It was all in the way thoughts ran through your mind, the way you managed the flow of electrical changes jumping from one brain cell to another to form ideas.

That's what makes somebody who they are. And that's why Mudshark was so cool.

He thought.

And Mudshark knows that he needs to engage all his thinking processes to figure out just what is going on at his school. For one thing, there's a talking parrot, the newest pet of librarian Mrs. Underdorf, who seems to be supplanting Mudshark in his role as school solver of mysteries. That parrot seems to know everything despite the fact that he is supposedly always locked in a cage in the library. Mud knows that he must solve the missing eraser mystery before the parrot does to keep his cool status at school. And he knows that the place to start has to be in close observation of the school's overworked custodian, a faceless mop-wielding nonentity to the rest of the school, but whom Mudshark discovers is recovering PTSD viction of Vietnam whose basement mop room is a museum of fine art and Baroque music and who reads everything from Plato to Mark Twain. He also fancies himself "The Custodian of Joyful Things," including, as Lyle learns, one errant gerbil and student creations on the school's blackboards, the preservation of which has become an obsession which has rendered him incapable of erasing the boards at day's end.

Mudshark quickly intuits the root of Mr. Wagner's eraser mystery, but his solution requires some delicacy, which ultimately involves Betty Crimper's Foul Odor Elixir cooked up in science lab, Mrs. Downside's sometimes evil cat, his buddy Kyle's amazing disappearing tricks, and avoidance training for the big-mouthed parrot. Mudshark and his curious crew carry off the plot, even bringing Mr. Patterson home from his obsessive diversion through the duct work in the process. All is almost all well.

This is the principal. I cannot stress strongly enough that, for your own safety and per the restrictions of Homeland Security, to whom, by the way, we'd like to offer a warm welcome, you please refrain from going anywhere near the faculty restroom. Oh, and great news about Mr. Patterson. While he hasn't caught the gerbil, his application for another summer of teaching wilderness camp has been approved. Way to go, Mr. Paterson!

Although Paulsen exercises literary license in keeping the veil intact over the mystery in the faculty bathroom, he manages to keep middle readers laughing all the say through this deft and comic school story. A short (83-page) and snappy outing, along the lines of his hit comedy Lawn Boy, in Mudshark (Random House, 2009) Paulsen proves that he's still the king of boy protagonist comedy in this quirky page-turner in which anyone who's ever eaten the Prune Liver Surprise in a school lunchroom will feel right at home.

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