BOOKS

Teenage wasteland

Two boys foundering en route to manhood

GUY LAWSON July 10 1995
BOOKS

Teenage wasteland

Two boys foundering en route to manhood

GUY LAWSON July 10 1995

Teenage wasteland

BOOKS

Two boys foundering en route to manhood

There isn’t a name for them yet—those early teen years of 14 and 15 when a boy’s voice drops, he grows two shoe sizes every six months and he begins to see and judge the world through his own eyes. “An asso-lescent” is how Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford’s latest novel, Independence Day, describes his 15year-old son, Paul. Chappie, the plain-speaking and compelling 14-year-old narrator of Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone, doesn’t have a word for his stage of life, and he doesn’t have a witty father to mint one for him. Chappie doesn’t have a father at all.

That is just one of the contrasts between these very fine, very different new works of American fiction. The stories of two white man-boys, the kind one might see hanging out at a mall on a school-day afternoon, sharply illustrate the vast and growing divide between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. Independence Day, the sequel to Ford’s much-praised The Sportswriter (1986), finds Frank Bascombe, a divorced, 44-year-old former short-story writer and sports journalist, selling real estate in a posh New Jersey town. It’s the Fourth of July weekend in 1988, and Bascombe is emerging from what he says is his “Existence Period,” a kind of mid-life crisis, a time of uncertain desire and lost love and regret, when treading water is the most that can be hoped for.

It is his son, Paul, a troubled, pudgy rich kid living with his mother and stepfather in a mansion in Connecticut, who seems to be drowning. Busted for shoplifting three boxes of extra-large condoms, Paul has his hair cut “in some new, dopey, skint-sided, buzzed-up way” and sports a tattoo that says “insect” on the inside of his right wrist. “In the next century,” Paul tells his father, “we’re all going to be enslaved by the insects that survived this century’s pesticides. With this I acknowledge being in a band of maladapted creatures whose time is coming to a close.” Driving up to spend the Independence Day weekend touring the baseball and basketball halls of fame with his son, Bas-

combe tells himself that at least Paul does not suffer from what he calls “the big three:” he does not play with fire, wet his bed or torture animals. But Bascombe finds a dead bird at the gate of Paul’s stepfather’s mansion and knows instantly that it is his son’s handiwork. Paul does torture animals.

Paul also reads The New Yorker, barks like a dog from time to time, and asks his father questions such as “Do you think I’m shallow?”

When Paul steals one of his stepfather’s Mercedes and crashes it, no charges are brought.

The incident is hushed up, consequences avoided. Paul has suffered the pain of a brother’s death and his parents’ subsequent divorce. But despite his strong self-destructive streak, Paul has second chances in life and is loved by his mother and father.

In Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone, 14year-old Chappie, like Paul, has an attentiongrabbing hairdo—a Mohawk cut. He also has a pierced nostril and ears. Chappie shoplifts useless goods, too—in his case, “a silky green nightgown” from a lingerie store. In the course of the novel, Chappie gets a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. But getting his tattoo—a pirate’s crossed bones without the skull—is not an ersatz nihilistic gesture like Paul’s. It is a way of remembering the innocence of his childhood, the time when his grandmother read Peter Pan to him, and of constructing his new identity as “the Bone,” as he comes to call himself.

Chappie, or Bone, doesn’t get second or third chances in life, or much in the way of love. Abandoned as a baby by his father, he lives in a trailer with his mother and stepfather, Ken, “basically a Nazi with a drinking problem plus a few others.” He lives there, that is, until he is kicked out of the trailer for stealing his mother’s rare coin collection.

Homeless and suffering, he says, from “wicked low g self-esteem,” Chappie sets I out into the world with noth! ing but his wits, much as l| Mark Twain’s Huckleberry 9 Finn did a century ago. I There is, in fact, more than a z passing resemblance be° tween Huck Finn and Chappie. Both are man-boys hiding from society—in the woods along the Mississippi in Huck’s case, in a field behind an upstate New York strip mall in Chappie’s—and both stories are told in a simple, slangy first-person voice. Chappie and Huck are brutally abused by their (step)fathers, although Chappie’s abuse is sexual. Both encounter a black man who imparts wisdom about the world: the slave Jim in Huck’s case, a Rastafarian named I-Man in Chappie’s. And both go missing and are presumed dead, although Huck fakes his own murder to fool his father, while Chappie escapes a fire and only realizes he is presumed dead when he sees the newspaper the next day.

But the biggest divergence is one of tone. In both Huckleberry Finn and Rule of the Bone, a spider is burned in a candle’s flame, but ¡5 Banks takes a radically dif| ferent approach from I Twain’s. When Huck acci1 dentally incinerates the spi-

der, he says, “I didn’t need anyone to tell me that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes off of me.” Chappie, on the other hand, is wasted on marijuana and says, “I was almost crying then. I’d done it. I’d moved the candle under the spider on purpose, it was my fault.”

It is impossible to say if Banks is deliberately echoing Twain—it seems likely—but Huck’s comic, superstitious response to the spider is a world apart from Chappie’s drug-addled melancholy. For all its satirical edge, Twain’s novel is set in a stable, small-town society with families intact. Huck, the bottom dog, was the exception. Chappie, for Banks, is the rule. Alone in the world, Huck and Chappie are trying to create their own sense of morality. But Huck’s journey is a tale of American innocence. Chappie’s wanderings are disjointed, often grim—the travels of experience.

In one of Banks’s earlier works, The Sweet Hereafter (1991), a character says, “In my lifetime something terrible happened that took our children away from us. I don’t know if it was the Vietnam War, or the sexual colonization of kids by industry, or drugs, or TV or divorce, or what the hell it was: I don’t know which are causes and which are effects; but the children are gone, that I know.” In a postindustrial, postmodern, pre-nothing culture, that is the sentiment that underlies Banks’s Rule of the Bone and Ford’s Independence Day.

Still, despite the superficial similarities, there is an enormous gap between Paul’s and Chappie’s lives. Middle-class Paul hurts himself to get his divorced parents’ attention; rejected by his family, Chappie seriously contemplates, then nearly commits, suicide. When Paul steals a car he is protected; Chappie, who steals a pickup truck, would be sent to one of the boot camps popular with politicians these days to have the spirit beaten out of him if he were caught.

Taken separately, Independence Day—crackling with insights into everything from what to look for when buying a house to the special ring of hell reserved for divorced spouses who still love each other—is one of the year’s best novels. Rule of the Bone is a work of great humanity and empathy, and Chappie is a character who will stay vividly lodged in the memory. But the novel still presents problems. In the final third of the story, Chappie travels to Jamaica with I-Man, his Rastafarian mentor. Banks used the juxtaposition of the Caribbean and northeastern United States in Continental Drift (1985) to brilliant effect by connecting the lives of a working-class white American man and an illiterate Haitian woman. In Rule of the Bone, even though Banks obviously knows Jamaica and its customs, the connection feels forced and I-Man’s ganja-centric spirituality an unlikely solution to Chappie’s low self-esteem.

Taken together, Independence Day and Rule of the Bone prove that growing up in America is not getting any easier.

GUY LAWSON