Thursday, February 23, 2012

Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (NY: Atheneum, 2011).

Seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter lives in the small, admittedly dull, Arkansas town of Lily and has low expectations for the summer before his senior year in high school, even after his cousin Oslo dies of an overdose. He loves his brother Gabriel and is happy enough hanging out with his best friend Lucas Cader.  He keeps a journal and frequently records potential titles for future books he will write because he knows he will write, but he really doesn't know much else, especially once the town goes crazy about the alleged sighting of an extinct bird--the Lazarus woodpecker.  Then Gabriel disappears and nothing seems right anymore.  Meanwhile,  Benton Sage  has discovered he's not cut out to be a missionary in Africa, but learns a lot about angels instead.  He aborts his college career after one semester and his roommate Cabot Searcy takes on the angel obsession.  Eventually these two narratives intersect and resolve in a stunning yet highly satisfying manner.

Although this novel sounds a bit odd, rest assured it is amazing.  First, Cullen Witter is funny, though not pathetic, and his narrative realistically depicts the ups and downs of his family's struggles, especially after Gabriel disappears.  Cullen's deadpan delivery demonstrates his funky blend of endearing naivete and caustic cynicism.  His wacky dreams and daydreams about zombies, talking birds, and love conquests nicely balance his growing desolation after Gabriel vanishes and his family fractures into a new normal, all while the town reinvents itself over the possibility of a resurrected bird. The second narrative about Benton Sage and his college roommate Cabot seems utterly disconnected from Cullen's life, though family dysfunction steers it as well--and the odd fixation on otherworldly beings. No spoilers here--this is a novel that must be experienced. Whaley superbly captures the precarious nature of existence in this unpretentious coming of age tale.  Most highly recommended!  Sexual situations and language make it more suited to older teens, 14 & up.

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