Reading Around

A Hoboken murder, an e-book revolution, and a challenge to re-conceive the economy

Metaphor is a hell of a weapon in Dan Josefson's debut, That's Not a Feeling (Soho, 368 pp., $15.95), a troubled-young-folks-away-at-school novel more bright, dark, and hilarious than any half-dozen first novels all smooshed together. A likable monster named Aubrey rules over Roaring Orchards, a “therapeutic” boarding school in upstate New York. There, in batshit monologues, he convinces parents that their children are something like wily ol' Zeus in a myth of the book's own invention: Zeus came down to Earth, bursting with lusts, and tried to seduce a nymph, Aubrey says. The nymph's dad, knowing the score, did the Ovid thing and transformed the nymph into a turtle, so that she can retreat into her shell at Zeus's approach. Zeus than transforms himself into a toddler, approaches the turtle, convinces her he's harmless, and then has a go at her swan-on-Leda style—except this time it's infant-on-turtle, a coupling Aubrey has commemorated in statue form right there on the Roaring Orchards campus as a reminder: “Inside each of your children is a god,” he says. “It means we must be more vigilant, not less!”

The school, then, is the strangest of inventions. Josefson's kids, though, are all-too real: cutters and runaways and addicts and suicides, presented with dry comedy and deep—if sometimes suppressed—feeling. Of poor Tidbit, a lost girl who seeks refuge in smokes and meth, our narrator (a student/patient named Benjamin) notes, “She had no idea what was wrong with her. Sometimes she felt whatever it must be was so large and diffuse she couldn't get her head around it; other times it seemed it was some tart, nasty thing right at the center of her. Or not quite the center. Just off enough that she was always twisted and sweating and stumbling off in the wrong direction.”

Josefson applies that empathy to the school's students, staff, and parents, all of whom come under Aubrey's mad sway, and any of whose lives can become the focus of the novel—and of Benjamin, our sublimated narrator—at any time. The result is a funny, humane, egalitarian, and gently challenging book, one to quote and roar over, and one that gets better and stranger as it goes.

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