Tooley’s comic debut novel follows the anarchic misadventures of a gang of boys coming-of-age in Arizona’s Sonora Desert in the late 1960s.
Twelve-year-old narrator Johnny Caruso and his raucous friends make up the Seward School Bombers, or “the SBB.” Its main missions are to punish self-righteous tattletales, keep girls in their place, and generally buck the system. The novel’s episodic first half establishes the motley crew’s ethos as they glide from one catastrophic prank to the next without any consequences. In a series of exploits worthy of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the boys detonate explosives at the home of a school nuisance, make tennis-ball bazookas out of tin cans, confront a tough rival gang known as The Losers, and crash a meeting of the Pueblo Junior Debutantes and Young Gentleman’s Academy to devastating effect. The novel gets much-needed narrative traction when the boys take up a new hobby: ghost hunting at the historic, dilapidated Mansfield Place. But as the boys get closer to obtaining evidence of old Mr. Mansfield’s apparition, Johnny’s domestic life intrudes. His younger sister, Gracie, insists on tagging along, resulting in an emergency meeting of the SBB’s disciplinary council. With Johnny’s fealty to the gang in question, the stakes become even higher to solve the mystery. When the gang members discover a person in distress, it offers them a chance for redemption; they all consider their moral beliefs, and the extent to which they’re willing to take risks when it matters most. Johnny’s narrative voice is generally engaging and folksy. At times, though, it seems disingenuous, as when Johnny describes a savant: “This one poor fella, who hardly knew where the heck he was, could listen to a Baytoevan conchairtoe just once, and then, lickety-split, play the whole thing.” Such passages seem at odds with the author’s beautifully lyrical, and pointedly mature, descriptions of Arizona landscape (“The Palo Verdes were practically dripping in bright yellow blossoms that were startling against the mostly gray surroundings”).
A robust and often hilarious, if somewhat slow-paced, bildungsroman.