|Antheneum Books for|
By John Corey Whaley
Since this novel has received so many awards, and since it is narrated in the voice of a teenager stuck in a small town, I was excited to read it. I grew up in a small town and couldn’t wait to escape it! And while I will say that Whaley does capture the feeling of cynicism felt by many teenagers stuck in small towns who have little vision of the future, that feeling of cynicism is pretty much the only thing I could identify with in the novel.
The story is told mainly through the eyes of Cullen, a bored teenager who works at a local convenience store and hangs out with his friends. Cullen and his crew are amused by the current excitement in their hometown, Lily, over the possible reappearance of a long-extinct species of bird named the Lazarus Woodpecker. Alternating chapters are told in third person and describe the lives of Benton, raised to be a missionary by his dictatorial and overly-zealous father and Cabot, college-boy player extraordinaire turned nutcase. Eventually, the bizarre connection between the three narratives becomes clear.
Although the author skillfully weaves truisms into the dialogue that I appreciate as insightful, usually through the words of Cullen or Gabriel, I still have difficulty identifying with characters in the novel. Gabriel’s character is too briefly seen, Lucas and his girlfriend are ever-present, but have little to say, and reading about Cullen is, in the words of his own mother, “like watching someone with multiple personalities.” Even Ada and Alma, Cullen’s female companions for lack of a better description, are barely distinctive—not only do their names have similar meaning—but they both take advantage of Cullen and have little interest in him as a person. In short, the characters are very flat, and none of them (with the exception of perhaps Cabot) are particularly dynamic. Perhaps Whaley is attempting to write a modern Holden Caulfield, and indeed the text does have a literary edge to it, but Cullen is no Holden. The symbol of the Lazarus Woodpecker is a bit over-the-top, and frankly the symbolism of many of the names, for instance Gabriel, while perhaps necessary to incorporate the religious zeal, are overstated. Let’s face it, most teens just want a great story, one they can connect with, one they feel accurately reflects issues and concerns in their own lives, and one that moves. Perhaps teens may connect with Cullen’s feelings of negativity and isolation, but only if they can continue past the first few chapters. Couple the dragging plot with the dull cover, and without those award winning stickers, I doubt teens would pick up this novel, let alone finish or applaud it. Perhaps Whaley’s work would be more appropriate for older readers with more patience to trudge through the heavy handed symbolism and bizarre circumstances that bring this work to its completion.