A love of the game of marbles leads one 6-year-old boy on a yearlong competitive odyssey in this deliberately paced debut novel.
Ollies, cats’ eyes, bumblebees, and steelies: the shapes and colors of marbles enchant young Michael Archer. As much as he loves their colors, Michael is equally enchanted by the cool sportsmanship of the game itself: “The self-reliance, the independence required by the game struck a resounding, reverberating chord.” And he’s good at it. A mere first-grader, Michael’s good enough to best even the fourth-graders. The life of a 6-year-old boy is a treacherous one, and marbles lead to their share of hairsbreadth escapes. Michael goes fishing for old beauties at Axelrod’s junkyard, a plan that leaves him vulnerable to the owner’s intruder-smearing weaponry, balloons “inflated to almost bursting with a concoction of water, permanent fabric dye and a puree of rotten eggs.” Later, Michael causes a ruckus in the school library by spilling his lunchtime winnings across the floor. But things get serious when he’s challenged to a match by Billy Schoutenlauder. Robert, his older brother, warns Michael it could be a dangerous game, and this proves no laughing matter. Sore losers abound. Early on, Rodney Strong chases Michael all the way home, spoiling for a fight. And Michael isn’t the only unwitting victim. Spencer’s voice is rich and absorbing, though his sentences can be wordy. Simple gestures become confusing via overdescription (“I used both of my hands to press and then wipe away the external and internal moisture that had built-up in and around my eyes”). But these boyhood struggles are winsome, and debut author Islo, in his attention to the textures of everyday objects, may remind readers of an early Nicholson Baker.
An amusing—if sometimes sluggish—novelization of a time when marbles meant everything.