Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Killer Thriller? Hero by Mike Lupica

"POWERS?" Kate said.


She smiled then. not the way she did when she was making fun of him. Just a smile that told Zach that she believed him.

It was the kind of smile that made him feel as if everything was going to be all right, even though he knew that probably wasn't true, that nothing was going to be the same for him ever again.

"I guess that leaves me with only one question," Kate said.


Kate Paredes smiled at him again and said, "Are you going to have to wear a cape?"

Zach Harriman is devastated when the father he idolizes dies in an unexplained plane crash, returning from a special mission for the government, presumably against foreign terrorists. But when Zach is drawn to the site of the crash far out on Long Island, he meets a strange old man who calls himself Mr. Herbert, a man who seems to know everything about him and why his father died.

"You should trust me because I was the one who first told your father he had the magic in him," Mr. Herbert said.

"Don't be afraid, boy." the old man said. "You've got the magic, too."

And, then, just like that, the old man was gone.

Zach ran after him, ignoring the high grass, feeling as if all the wind of the day were at his back now. Closed his eyes and ran, faster. Feeling like he was the one flying now.... Like he'd become invisible.

When he opened his eyes--Zach saw that he was running across the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. As if he'd texted himself home.

As if by magic.

It's a kid's dream to be suddenly reborn a hero, a superhero, the inheritor of his father's supernatural powers, the hoped-for avenger and redeemer to vanish the forces of evil, here known simply as The Bads. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are just two recent heroes who struggle with assuming the mantles of their renowned fathers in an eons-old tradition going back past Beowulf to Jason and before, and Mike Lupica, master of the middle-school sports hero story, has decided to cast his current literary lot with these supernatural second-generation heroes.

He partly succeeds. Lupica is skillful in writing credible dialog and creating believable boys, torn by the responsibility to remain true to their powers, be it fast ball, hail Mary pass, or sudden superheroics and of reconciling their ambitions and drives to the vicissitudes of growing up in the world in which they find themselves. Lupica's parental figures are supportive and sensitive, and yet detached enough so that his characters operate pretty much without their interference within their own world. His characters are often blessed also with lovely, dewy-eyed girlfriends who are smart, independent, but unquestioning, and unfailingly unselfish and supportive as well. In his latest, Hero, (Philomel, 2010) Lupica offers up both of these stock characters as fairly-fleshed out minor characters in the form of Zach's mom and his friend Kate, not to mention another staple, two conflicting mentors, the mysterious Mr. Herbert, with "powers" of his own, and "Uncle John," an avuncular family friend who somehow knows of his father's powers and who also seeks to control his super skills against the nebulous "Bads" who threaten Zach daily.

Some kids will love the vicarious thrill of suddenly inhabiting a body equipped with supersonic speed, super-sharp vision and hearing, the ability to detect evil before it appears, and the overwhelming rush of transformative fighting power when it does. After all, it's better than Peter Parker morphing into Spiderman; it's like realizing that you're Superman or the Incredible Hulk with no need for those uncomfortable tights.

Of course, some kids may see through this formulaic novel, finding it all too familiar, with an uncomfortable "Here we go again" feeling. Additionally, unlike Harry and Percy and their literary cousins, Lupica's hero has no intriguing alternative world, no Hogwarts or Camp Half-Blood populated with like beings, in which to mature his powers, and unlike Harry and Percy, whose dark lords are the very essence of good gone wrong, the vision of evil against which Zach is supposed to contend remains fairly nebulous, limited for most of this novel to the occasional goombahs who try to rough him up. Are they the henchmen of some evil but earthly empire, suicide terrorists, minions of some Machiavellian overlord, or spirits from some as-yet undelineated other world? Tune in for the sequel, sure to follow, for further enlightenment.

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