Few novels in this age of lowered expectations could survive the title of Dana Adam Shapiro’s debut. Throw in a recently deceased 15-year-old protagonist named Henry Every and the outlook seems dire indeed. Although hardly devoid of heavy-handed metaphor or satirical excess, The Every Boy carries its conceits easily, its 200-plus pages too brief for poignant comedy to curdle into cloying sentiment, and its easily digestible sentences ensuring that only fussbudgets will notice the bits of blatantly artificial plotting or the less-than-rigorous treatment of point of view.
Reading through his son’s exhaustive color-coded journals in the weeks following his funeral, Henry’s father seeks clues to the boy’s secret life and mysterious death (the details of which are withheld until book’s end). A decidedly idiosyncratic sensibility is revealed—after hearing a story about how his grandmother was terrorized by a pigeon, “Henry ate neither chicken nor egg and abstained from all games of duck-duck-goose.” By fourth grade things had “turned ideological.” On MLK Day, Henry wears blackface and a noose, sits in the back of the classroom, and refuses to drink from the “white” fountain. More traditionally, Henry’s journal painfully chronicles his doomed teenage romance, which finds a brighter present-tense parallel in his father’s tentative efforts to win back his estranged wife. Nearly as obsessive as his protagonist, Shapiro repeats peculiar word choices (characters are continually packing and unpacking their “fundamentals”) and revels in a menagerie of animal imagery—ants, birds, and especially jellyfish. (The book joins Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film
Bright Future in the current vogue for cnidarian-related narratives.)
Henry’s mid-novel trip to New York cements the inevitable Holden Caulfield parallel, but given Shapiro’s corporeal take on youthful alienation, Gregor Samsa might be just as relevant. In a key scene, Henry finds himself at a New Year’s Eve gathering of “Pilgrims,” who have voluntarily undergone body modification as extreme as amputation. (Shapiro co-directed
Murderball, the acclaimed new documentary about quadriplegic rugby players.) The motif appears subtly throughout
The Every Boy (one character gets a nose job; another resists getting her ears pierced) and brings Shapiro into ethically treacherous territory—by linking Henry’s disaffection to that of racial minorities, the aged, and especially the handicapped, the book comes uncomfortably close to equating transitory teen angst with more entrenched forms of disenfranchisement. Still, any former (or current) teenage boy is likely to empathize with the explanation one Pilgrim gives for having his vocal cords surgically altered: “My voice wasn’t my voice. . . . It was like a stranger was speaking through me.”