Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Review of Sandbag Shuffle by Kevin Marc Fournier

If I were picking a book to review for Mr. Fournier (who can be found here), it would surely be some garishly-bound long-forgotten penny dreadful that I scrounged from some used book purgatory. I'd find merits to enjoy, and I'd bear the faults with the loving bemusement I'd normally reserve for an eccentric uncle. That's what I would do, but Kevin had to go and write a novel of his own. The bastard.

Sandbag Shuffle is deep and thoughtful examination of health care of two neighboring countries. The voyage of Andrew and Owen from the Dickensian horrors of an orphanage on the south side of the US/Canada border into the civilized northern landscapes, whose progressive institutions give handicapped Owen the real mobility and the figurative inner strength he needs to save Winnipeg from the Red River flood of 1997. It's a deep, brilliant metaphor for...

Ah, I can't do that. The absence of that sort of highblown pretense is exactly what makes this book a keeper. I remember the young adult books of my day, of the S. E. Hinton or M. E. Kerr vintage (initials-only must have been the key to authenticity in those days), that tried to get it real by introducing some heavy urban grit and some over-the-top drama that'd take a young person to forgive for its ham-handedness. Even though Owen and Andrew are escapees from a group home, even though one of them is legless and both are quite capable of being devilish little pricks, Fournier avoids all of that high drama, and the two boys would no doubt flip a heartfelt finger at your sympathy, or take advantage of it. The characters don't suffer deep lessons, they don't hit bottom (although they skim it awhile), they don't find true love or any of that. Instead, we follow them around as they bicker and scheme and survive. This is the same guy that recommended Chekhov (below) and Colette (to come), and I can see some of that in there. It's not a voyage of self-discovery, but a presentation of characters that are fully realized from the start. Plotwise, you can say a bunch of stuff happens, but the point isn't unfolding a masterpiece of structure, it's taking a good ride with a couple of likable people.

The two of them are a lot like the boys I knew growing up: little ur-bastards, the good-parts combination of those little shits who were great friends (to the small degree you could break into the circle) and horrible influences. Owen and Andrew have no respect for authority, nor for charity, but they have each other, and if they're not trained for society, they're teeming with streetwise instincts and a feral charm that--and this is important--comes across in the writing. Their faults of knowledge are profound, and when they bicker over them, Fournier elevates it to comic art. He's got a good trick with breaking the fourth wall too, adressing the reader at times ("now you and I know..."), and shifting to the present where-are-they-now tense when it fits to do so.

Young Adult, I've been told, is hard to do well, and I imagine that it's got to be hard to avoid the condescension. I can offer my own opinion on that, but the ultimate of arbiter of something like this, of course, is my daughter, who I read it to. Must have been a trip for her. She got a whole lot of embarrassed cursing when I couldn't think of an on-the-fly edit (PG-13 gets you exactly one "fuck" and unlimited shits and damns so long as they stay appropriate). It's the sort of thing I'd have rather left for her own discovery because, hey, if there's a lesson here, it's how to be a good person while still giving authority the (dis)respect it deserves, and, like, I'm the alleged authority here. A recommended read, if you don't mind subjecting Junior to that level of suversion.


twiffer said...

i too enjoyed "sandbag shuffle", though i do wish his publishers had let him keep the original title of "owen's wet ass". i'm sure they only changed it because of concerns the public would be upset when they found not a single donkey mentioned in the pages.

aside: the bacon bookmark is a nice touch.

Anonymous said...

I am totally with twiffer. I bought it, read it, liked it, and I will think of it always as Owen's Wet Ass.

Keifus said...

I can understand why they'd have wanted it changed, but I must agree, the original title is way more evocative.