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Coming-of-age tale reads like fable, parody

"American Boy" is a small book, about the size of a couple of stacked Kindles, beautifully made, printed on acid-free paper. Its size need not in itself be a symbol of anything necessarily -- good things do come in small packages. However, in this case, there is a correlation. This is a small book: admirable in its way, but as a novel a too-modest product, sad to say.

In the world today most cultural streams feed into a mainstream and reach out to an audience theoretically as polymorphous and wide as the reach of digital information can make it. This book represents a kind of anachronism, albeit one that in itself is not bad and one that, in the right hands, can reach beyond time and borders to a variety of audiences -- that anachronism is regionalism. This book is what might have been called regional literature at one time.

I'm not a fan of Garrison Keillor, but his "Lake Woebegon" tropes about Minnesotans have so permeated the culture that I couldn't help thinking what a polite, unassuming, diffident, Minnesota kind of book this was, from a Minnesota publisher -- Milkweed Editions, one of the country's finest literary presses and one doing great work for 30 years, along with Coffee House and Graywolf, two other Minneapolis literary publishers that help make the city one of the country's great places for the writing arts. Institutions such as those and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and the Loft Literary Center are the models for Buffalo's Western New York Book Arts Center and Just Buffalo Literary Center and many other colleague organizations around the country.

The novel is set in 1962 Minnesota, in a small town close to Minneapolis, among middle-class white people. Nothing happens beyond mild rebellion, rough hockey, and shame and embarrassment, desire and betrayal. Brief fisticuffs occur twice. There are a few four-letter words to give the story some edge, but this world has a bell-jarred innocence over it so thick as to make the text seem almost like a fable or a parody. To be honest I read the first 50 pages waiting for the punch line, the author pulling back the curtain to say "just kidding."

However, that never happened. The book is a sincere, simple, straightforward first-person story narrated by Matt Garth about himself and his best friend Jimmy Dunbar (even the names have a ring of parody) and Jimmy's family, with whom Matt spent most of his time -- and about their small town.

The narrative period is the boys' senior year in high school, as related by Matt looking back, we find out in a conventional wrap-up at the end. The book begins and ends with a kind of voice-over, and the action starts with a medical case involving a shooting that Jimmy's doctor father has to attend to. The victim is Louisa, a pretty young woman, who, with nowhere to go in the small town, is taken in by the doctor and his wife. The woman's in her late 20s, the boys are teens. The doctor is impossibly handsome, his wife beautiful, the doctor's a leading citizen in the small town. Matt is smitten with Louisa, a mature woman making his most recent teen girlfriend pale in comparison. Eventually, the doctor is smitten also. Blah blah.

Events ensue, eventually leading to the sundering of Jimmy's family. There is a faint hint during the expository resolution at the end that Jimmy might possibly be gay, but only a slight inference. That at least would lift the narrative to something slightly more interesting and three-dimensional. Otherwise, the novel is puzzlingly predictable, although written with firm skill and a good eye for the telling detail.

Author Watson is chair of the Creative Writing Department at Marquette University, so the sentence-level competence is at a level to be expected. But the overall story is stiffly portentous and solemn, given the flatness of the narrative arc: There's no way around the fact that this is a world of luckily mundane lives. People are comfortable, most are attractive, some have less money than others, but hardship is basically snow and the difficulty of arranging ways to sneak a beer.

Some problems here go beyond those of benevolence. The women characters -- of which there are only a few, and most are walk-on roles -- are uniformly weak, feckless, and, in the case of the female antagonist, predatory and manipulative, defined (again, un-ironically) by their sexuality or attractiveness. "American Boy" is another Midwestern nostalgic male-teen-coming-of-age story, another book for that shelf that's ready to crack under the weight of other books covering the same territory. Again, that's not necessarily bad or wrong. However, to quote the old school hip-hop heroes Public Enemy, "It might feel good, it might sound a little somethin, but damn the game if it ain't sayin nothin" -- to make a place on that already overcrowded bookshelf, a novel needs to say something. And "American Boy," I'm afraid, ain't sayin nothin'.

Ed Taylor is a freelance writer and critic.


American Boy

By Larry Watson


251 pages, $24