About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

#37 - The Shadow Year

The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford (New York: William Morrow, 2008) is an ordinary book, set in an ordinary time. What makes it almost magical, though, is Ford's ability to capture that place and time absolutely perfectly.

Jacket blurb: "In New York's Long Island, in the unpredictable decade of the 1960s, a young boy laments the approaching close of summer and the advent of sixth grade. Growing up in a household with an overworked father whom he rarely sees, an alcoholic mother who paints wonderful canvases that are never displayed, an older brother who serves as both tormentor and protector, and a younger sister who inhabits her own secret world, the boy takes his amusements where he can find them. Some of his free time is spent in the basement of the family's modest home, where he and his brother, Jim, have created Botch Town, a detailed cardboard replica of their community, complete with clay figurines representing family and neighbors. And so the time passes with a not-always reassuring sameness -- until the night a prowler is reported stalking the neighborhood.

"Appointing themselves ad hoc investigators, the brothers set out to aid the police -- while their little sister, Mary, smokes cigarettes, speaks in other voices, inhabits alternate personas ... and unbeknownst to her older siblings, moves around the inanimate residents of Botch Town. But ensuing events add a shadowy cast to the boys' night games: disappearances, deaths, and spectral sightings capped off by the arrival of a sinister man in a long white car trawling the neighborhood after dark. Strangest of all is the inescapable fact that every one of these troubling occurrences seems to correspond directly to the changes little Mary has made to the miniature town in the basement."

Opening line: "It began in the last days of August, when the leaves of the elm in the front yard had curled into crisp brown tubes and fallen away to litter the lawn."

My take: It's hard for me to be objective about this one, but not for the usual reasons. No, this time it's because Ford has captured perfectly the unremarkable, minute details of a middle-class Long Island neighborhood from the 1960s or '70s. This is the South Shore of my childhood, complete with Nair bombs and middle-schoolers dressed as bums on Hallowe'en, elderly Italian widowers with fig trees in their yards, Bazooka gum for a nickel, and spooky neighborhood rumors of bad guys in white cars. For the uninitiated, The Shadow Year reminded me of Stand By Me: there's a somewhat scary frame story, but this is first and foremost a story about growing up in a time and place that doesn't really exist any more. From the narrator's description of his first day of fifth grade at the neighborhood elementary school (dubbed, in distinctly un-P.C. fashion, "the Retard Factory" by the narrator and his brother), I could practically feel and smell the everyday details of his world:
"School started on a day so hot it seemed stolen from the heart of summer. The tradition was that if you got new clothes for school, you wore them the first day. My mother had made Mary a couple of dresses on the sewing machine. Because he'd outgrown what he had, Jim got shirts and pants from Gertz department store. I got his hand-me-downs, but I did also get a new pair of dungarees. They were as stiff as concrete and, after months of my wearing nothing but cutoffs, seemed to weigh fifty pounds. I sweated like the Easter pig, shuffling through school zombie style, to the library, the lunchroom, on the playground, and all day long that burlap scent of new denim smelled like the spirit of work."
Likewise, Jim's advice to Mary before she heads out for her first Hallowe'en night without the parents could have come from my own oh-so-wise teenaged next-door neighbor:
"'The idea ... is to get as much candy as possible. You want candy, wrapped candy. If you get a candy bar, that's the best -- a Hershey bar or a Milky Way. Mary Janes are okay if you don't mind losing a few fillings, little boxes of Good & plenty, Dots, Chocolate Babies, packs of gum, all good. Then you've got your cheapskate single-wrapped candy -- root-beer barrels, butterscotches, licorice drops -- not bad, usually given out by people who are broke, but what can they do? They're trying.

"'You don't eat anything that's not wrapped, except for Mr. Barzita's figs. Some people drop an apple in your bag. You can't eat it, but you can throw it at someone, so that's okay. Once in a while, someone will bake stuff to give out. Don't eat it -- you don't know what they put in it. It could be the best-looking cupcake you ever saw, with chocolate icing and a candy corn on top, but who knows, they might have crapped in the batter. I've seen where people will throw a penny in your sack. Hey, a penny's a penny.

"'You always stay where we can see you. If someone invites you into their house, don't go. when we tell you to run, run, 'cause kids could be coming to throw eggs at us. If you hear someoen should 'Nair bomb,' run like hell.'"
Oh, yeah; the plot behind it all. Solid enough, if none too exciting: a prowler, a sinister guy lurking around the neighborhood, a vanished classmate. Ultimately, though, we don't get most of the gory details; the story is but a backdrop for a gorgeous, subtly rendered portrait of scenes from a childhood. I was sad to see it end.

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