A passionate English teacher rebels against bureaucracy as his dog meditates on life and death in Cannon’s debut novel.
Frank Boxer, an English teacher at Pines Environmental High School, is beloved by his students and despised by the school’s “educrats,” administrators fixed on regulating curriculums and promoting standardized testing. At the book’s opening, Frank is starting his annual summer field trip to show students the splendor of the American West and the freedom of a road trip. On returning to Massachusetts, he faces a tough school year. Educrats are set on further eroding teacher autonomy at the Pines, and Frank’s beloved rescue dog, Duncan, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. A battle between administration (led by the despised principal, Austin Daisy) and the teacher’s union over workload, pay, and basic respect means that Frank and other teachers are under constant threat of punishment for infringement of a growing list of petty rules. Some of Frank’s colleagues are fired or resign, and Frank wonders if this will be his last year at the Pines despite his love of teaching. This storyline provides structure to a series of looser scenes and contemplations. Frank remembers his abusive stepfather and ponders the search for meaning in his life, and Duncan himself provides a substantial portion of the book’s narrative, exhorting his readers to respect nonhuman life and sharing his life story as he prepares for his own death. Cannon’s playful language infuses even Duncan’s most contemplative passages with exuberance: “I’ll tease you like an eighties hairdo, and I’m as handsome as a winning Powerball ticket!” Frank and Duncan are both well-developed characters, thoughtful and caring but a little sanctimonious. Frank’s students and fellow teachers showcase some snappy, fun dialogue but tend to blur due to shallow characterization. Frank’s antagonists are cartoon villains, not only educrats, but arrogant, cowardly, and sexually depraved. A reliance on stock or flimsy characterization leads to a passionate defense of student-centered education that sometimes reads like a rant.
A free-wheeling text with playful writing and underdeveloped secondary characters.