Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Amazing Absorbing Boy

by Rabindranath Maharaj

The old adage of not judging a book by its cover rather applies to The Amazing Absorbing Boy.  I only noticed the book because of the cover by the incredible Michael Cho, which led me to seek out a copy.

The Amazing Absorbing Boy should have been right up my ally - it's a coming of age novel set in Toronto filled with comic book references, telling the story of a teenager who has to come to Canada from Trinidad after his mother's death.  He moves in with his father, who left the island when the boy was eight, and who is more than reluctant to take up the burdens of fatherhood with a complete stranger.

The problem is that the book kind of fell flat.  I found it hard to warm up to Sam, the protagonist, as he wandered the city and became obsessed with different potential father figures (and the occasional love interest).  Each chapter has him falling under the spell of a different eccentric - the old man who hangs out at Coffee Time with his friends, the doctor who drives a cab and makes up wild stories, the old man who likes to rent B-movies and write his own film scripts, the guy who works at the library and has been toiling for twenty-some years on the second line of a poem he began; the conspiracy-minded customer at an antique shop, and so on.  One or two characters like this would have been believable, but the endless parade is mind-numbing, especially since they don't really contribute to the book, or Sam's development, in the least.

Towards the end of the book, author Rabindrinath Maharaj seems to realize that he's never addressed the issues between Sam and his father, nor the reason why the book has the title it does, so he crams in the father's back story, and another eccentric character; this time a young boy with scaly skin.  Neither of these payoffs work, as both are devoid of emotion.

As for the comic book references, they are as heavy-handed and awkward as much of the characterizations.  Unlike Junot Díaz, who weaves pop culture and comic references seamlessly into his writing, Maharaj's stick out.  "He looks like he was drawn by Jack Kirby," is one example, while others reference things like Frank Miller's Daredevil run, but in such a way that neither fits with what actually happened in Miller's run, nor with the reality of a boy who would have been growing up in Trinidad in the late 90s and early 00's (based on the fact that the story contains the relocation of residents of Regent Park).  I kind of felt like someone told Maharaj that peppering the book with geek references would make it popular these days, and so he went back and added it in where possible.

Furthermore, I found the generally poor copy-editing to be distracting.  Sam narrates the book, but not in the argot of his island - that is saved exclusively for his dialogue.  The problem is, many prepositions are used incorrectly in the narration, but not consistently.  It made me a little crazy while reading the book.

There could have been a good story here, but it would have needed a lot more attention from an editor, and some more workshopping before it was ready to be published.  On the other hand, the cover is really lovely.

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