This first novel, a fugitive from the teen bookshelves, combines a school shooting and a whimsical afterlife in a touching tale of what friendship and growing up can mean.
Oliver Dalrymple, whose pallor earns him the nickname Boo, is a precocious 13-year-old at Helen Keller Junior High when he suddenly dies in front of his locker. He reports this on the first page of what will be his book-length effort to explain the afterlife to his parents. Smith (Bang Crunch: Stories, 2008) has fun presenting the slightly off or odd details of a limbo called Town where those who have “passed” are gathered with others of the same age—13 in Boo’s case—to live in “three-story red-brick dormitories,” work simple jobs, and abide by a few rules before entering another phase after 50 years. It’s Lord of the Flies without pig slaughter and privation: there are regular shipments of food, clothing, and other needs provided by a deity whom Boo annoyingly calls Zig. A plot of sorts develops when Johnny Henzel, another kid from Helen Keller, appears and Boo learns that both of them were victims of a student with a gun whom they dub Gunboy. Memories can be fuzzy in Town, so there’s more than one unreliable narrator at work here. A hunt for Gunboy ensues in which self-discovery plays a major role. The novel has an understated message about gun control and bullying and is a fine portrayal of Boo’s emergence from the carapace of fear, distrust, and solitude he grew for himself in his short life.
Smith is often amusing in cute and clever ways, but there’s a slyer, more satisfying humor in the twins Tim and Tom Lu, who owe something to Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and -dee. The book’s often earnest trip over the rainbow could have used more of that.