by Jack Gantos
Farrar Straus Giroux (September 2011)
Ages 10 and up
I have only one thing to say about Dead End in Norvelt—Jack Gantos' "entirely true and wildly fictional" anti-memoir of young Jack Gantos—and that's this: Cheezus crust. This book is fabulous. Okay, that's two things, and one of them is a regular utterance of the story's anti-hero, so if it offends anyone to read it, don't read on.
Set in the dying town of Norvelt sometime during the 1960's, young Jack Gantos is having to spend the summer digging a faux bomb shelter as punishment for firing his father's "Jap" rifle and mowing down his mother's corn crop. If he hadn't fired that rifle, he wouldn't have had to mow down the corn to keep on his father's good side. And if the shock of the shot hadn't caused Miss Volker to drop her hearing aid into the toilet, he might not have been sent to help her write up the obituaries of notable dead Norvelters. And if he hadn't been sent to help her out, he wouldn't have gotten on the wrong side of the town's tricycle-riding geriatric vigilante who carries a torch for Miss Norvelt, even though she's a commie lovin' liberal. His love is fierce, and so is his vengeance.
While it may sound like a lot to digest, Gantos (both the current and former) delivers the narrative in laugh out loud, easy going fashion, all the while leaping effortlessly from life on a macro to micro level as he and those around him grapple with the fact that the town is evaporating before their eyes—being moved away to another state, house by house, by an unknown real estate investor—and with it, the values upon which the town was founded (thanks to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt who felt all people should live in dignity).
Everywhere he goes (which isn't far, since he's grounded for the summer), Jack is caught in the crossfire of warring ideologies, the greatest of which is right under his own roof.
"That night my birthday celebration continued. Mom, Dad and I had cake and ice cream and played Monopoly, which Dad declared was the greatest game ever invented. 'It is the American dream in a box,' he said, pleased with his tidy summation.
Mom disagreed. 'It teaches you how to ruin other people's lives without caring,' she countered."
The characters are so full of life and individuality they practically walk right off the page and breathe down your neck. In addition to Jack and his parents, there's the aging medical examiner, Miss Volker, who is determined to fulfill her duty to Eleanor Roosevelt by providing the final "health report" of original Norvelters (that is, she wants to make sure she outlives her eight competitors); Bunny, whose father owns the funeral parlor and who is unfazed by gore, which is a good thing because Jack has a torrential nose bleed every time he gets excited (read: often); and of course, Mr. Spizz, the giant tricycle-riding irritant who forces Jack into an agreement that has deadly consequences.
Gantos infuses so much life and laughter into this slice of small town America, I can't find a thing wrong with it. The pacing is smooth and quick, even when it takes screwy turns and plunges down the path of ancient history (Jack spends a lot of time in his room reading history books and Miss Volker ties in each death with a moment in history). The dialog is exquisite and the setting is so flawlessly crafted, it's like stepping into a 1960's television show. In fact, Dead End in Norvelt is a perfect fit for television or film. I wouldn't be surprised to see it play out that way.
With unabashed flourish, Gantos rings the warning bell of history—how we are doomed to repeat what we forget. The real controversy of the book is not the handling of death (which I think is just brilliant), it's the harkening back to the many histories of oppression by the rich through war and accumulation. Reading this, it's hard not to notice allusions to today's current affairs. Considering these polarizing times, I'm surprised this hasn't been an issue with the gatekeepers.
Would some people find the subject matter too much? Of course, there are always some people in every bunch. Thankfully, the world is a big place, with readers of every stripe. Dead End in Norvelt is listed for ages ten and up, which is just about right. There should be no upper limit to its readership.
Source: I bought my copy at Barnes & Noble.