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The real magic here, however, is Chabon’s facility for enlisting less-than-obvious ways of storytelling, methods that borrow neither from myth nor from the entertainment culture: How many books for young adults introduce not just moral, but philosophical, dilemmas? Now and again, the narrator pops out like the Stage Manager in Our Town to convey The Message, or just to say hello -- occasional breaks in the plot that will chill even the most jaded reader to the bone. As we near the story‘s climax, for example, Ethan is confronted by La Llorona, a demon that’s taken the shape of his dead mother. The boy experiences an early bout of existential dread:
And in that moment he felt -- for the first time that optimistic and cheerful boy allowed himself to feel -- how badly made life was, how flawed. No matter how richly furnished you made it, with all the noise and variety of Something, Nothing always found a way in, seeped through the cracks and patches. Mr. Feld was right; life was like baseball, filled with loss and error, with bad hops and wild pitches, a game in which even champions lost almost as often as they won, and even the best hitters were put out seventy percent of the time. Coyote was right to want to wipe it out, to call the whole sad thing on account of darkness.
That‘s not exactly your average young-adult-reader material.
Through much of Summerland there is a sense that Chabon is so intent on world building that his considerable talent for plotting has given way to brainstorming. In this way, the book sometimes reads too much like those stories improvised over several hundred sleepy nights, or like the ballooning 2,600-page manuscript Grady Tripp chips away at in Wonder Boys. As Chabon piles on the characters in Summerland, I got the feeling that I was watching ESPN’s broadcast of the National Football League‘s draft day. There are too many werebeings and ferishers and giants to keep track of.
Then again, I may be less in need of an author planting the seeds of a new world in my head. Most kids don’t have that problem. They will likely be transported by Summerland in a way that Chabon describes early on:
In a book or a movie, when strange things begin to happen, somebody will often say, ”I must be dreaming.“ But in dreams nothing is strange. Ethan thought that he might be dreaming not because a nude werefox had shown up making wild claims and smoking a pipe that was definitely not filled with tobacco, but because none of these things struck him as particularly unexpected or odd.
At its best, that is what this book is like. And that is what will happen, if you let it.
SUMMERLAND: A Novel | By MICHAEL CHABON | Miramax BooksHyperion | 492 pages | $22.95 hardcover