When his father dies suddenly, an adolescent boy faces more than one kind of loss as he navigates the perilous path between childhood and maturity in a new city in Walker’s debut novel.
In 1965, 12-year-old Sam “Humpy” Barger lives with his family in the tiny fishing village of Ninilchik, Alaska, helping his father mend and set nets, attending his small, eighth-grade class, and taking the first shy steps toward having a girlfriend. Then his world gets turned upside down: his strong, capable father has a heart attack and dies, forcing Sam’s mom to move him, his brother, and his sister to Anchorage so that she can find work. Reeling from the sudden loss, Sam confronts the challenges in his life with honesty, integrity, and curiosity, as well as sadness and anxiety. Along the way, however, he makes new friends and tests the limits of his daring. Walker’s first-person narrative is engaging and vivid as he describes Sam’s earnest progress toward discovering who he is. The author skillfully evokes the world of adolescent boys, full of gross-out jokes, territorial challenges, and a few true friends. Sam’s adventures are gripping, yet realistic, such as when he almost, but not quite, gets caught by the police while stealing comic books, and each escapade teaches him something about himself. Occasionally, readers may feel Walker reaches a bit too far for an unlikely metaphor, as when Sam describes a Corvette passing his friend as “a burgundy ghost passing across the mirror of his soul.” Also, although the narrative does treat racism with some sensitivity, a gratuitous gay joke goes disturbingly unremarked. In general, though, the book is absorbing as it describes the painfully awkward moment before kids become “teenagers with cars and adults with power.” As it follows Sam through the changes and choices, the plot builds to an exciting conclusion that includes violence, redemption, and the first faltering steps toward a new life.
A picaresque coming-of-age tale with an often appealing hero.