A picaresque, coming-of-ager by Udall (stories: Letting Loose the Hounds, 1997) invokes nearly every archetype of the genre while still managing to be fresh and vigorous, and unveiling a rarely seen slice of American life in the process.
Edgar’s Apache mother had her first drink the day she gave birth to him, on an Arizona reservation, and was never again sober. And his white father split seven months before. So life’s looking pretty bleak until the now-seven-year-old gets his head run over by the mailman’s jeep, surviving the first in a series of miracles. When he wakes up three months later, he’s not just gaining consciousness—little Edgar is being born into a whole new life. St. Divine’s Hospital, with its infrequent attention and even more infrequent love, provides Edgar with a family that’s a huge improvement over his biological one. With echoes of Dickens, Edgar meets the stock characters who will reappear throughout his life. It can take a bit to get accustomed to the unique, alternating voices—an intimate, poignant, humorous first-person and a well-paced third—but, ultimately, it’s wonderfully successful. From the hospital, Edgar is shipped to the William Tecumseh Sherman School, a Native American reformatory sure to rival any fictional institution for cruelty and deprivation. Despite this, though, the boy never quite loses the comic edge that lends his story its buoyancy. Edgar eventually manages to get placed with a Mormon family—on loan from some John Irving tale—complete with a genius stepbrother, a sexy stepsister, and an adulterous stepmom. Somewhere along the way he’s decided that his life mission is to find that mailman in the jeep who was the prime mover behind all this: he wants to let the guy know he’s just fine. This quest, which sends the teenaged Edgar from Utah across the country, leads to a close as unexpected as it is heartbreaking.
A remarkably assured debut novel that brings to life a unique world, tells its story with skill, and remains enthralling throughout. A bit of a miracle in its own right.