Sam Abernathy is uncomfortable.
He’s uncomfortable in school, having skipped two grades to become the only 11-year-old in eighth grade. He’s uncomfortable going on extreme survivalist camping trips with his dad. He’s uncomfortable with the notion that his parents assume he’ll be going to MIT when all he wants to do is become a chef. But none of this compares to the three days he spent stuck at the bottom of a well when he was 4. The novel toggles between Sam’s subterranean adventure and his experience in eighth grade befriending the lumbering James Jenkins (the boy Sam blames for sending him down the well all those years ago). The two white boys embark on a curious relationship, and while the author is adept at filling in small details here and there with flourishes, the big picture does not coalesce. Are the flashbacks to preternaturally self-aware 4-year-old Sam’s days in the well meant to represent reality? Or are they meant to be 11-year-old Sam’s understanding of the events as he remembers them? Either way, how does the talking armadillo fit in? The shades of characterization given to Sam, his parents, and their small Texas town create a setting for an exploration of toxic masculinity that doesn't cohere. Sam’s cooking is (anachronistically?) regarded by his father as stereotypically unmanly; James is forced to play football instead of dancing. Sam’s coy repetitions of “(excuse me)” instead of curse words work against believable characterization.
Smith’s first middle grader is a frustrating misfire. (Fiction. 10-14)