CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 12 . . . . February 17, 2006
New York, NY : Alfred A. Knopf (Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada ), 2005.
230 pp., cloth, $22.95.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Lois Brymer.
Crouching naked up on the sink, Barry noticed how sharply he could smell things this particular morning: the damp towel, the toilet, the drifting odor of his own body. He squatted there enjoying it quietly for a moment, then he gazed at himself in the mirror with droopy eyes and said, "Ah, that smells good."
Except it actually came out as "Arf, woof grrrd."
Barry jumped a little in surprise. He wasn't prepared for that. He tried to speak English again: "Arf, woof grrrd," was all he could say to his puzzled reflection, and he jumped again and fell off the sink entirely.
Barry lay crumpled on the cold, moist bathroom floor. He could hardly believe what was happening to him - what in fact had already happened overnight like magic.
When Barry wakes up one school-day morning, he is a boy no more...on the inside that is. Even though he still looks the same, he is beginning to feel and act like a dog. In fact, what has happened to him overnight "like magic" is that a flea bite has turned him into a kind of hound, a boyhound, "a very rare breed indeed." As his boy brain slowly transforms into a boyhound brain, Barry tries to come to terms with his emerging dog-like behaviour and the sounds that are coming out of his mouth. He decides that turning into a dog is going to be either, "A. One of the worst things that has ever happened, or B. So cool." As he licks his nose and armpit, "pinches out a small fart," and considers the toilet as his new source of thirst-quenching water, he thinks that if there are this many great new boyhound things to do all by himself in a bathroom, just wait until he goes outside. With widened eyes and a wicked grin spread across his face, "Yup, Barry chooses B. So cool." But cool turns out to be not so cool as Barry's day as a boyhound unfolds. His sneeze at the breakfast table sends his cereal bowl and its contents flying in all directions onto his mother's clean floor. Sidetracked on his way to school (he never does get there), he loses both a race and his pants when he and a standard poodle plunge into "murky fish-stinky" lake water in pursuit of a tennis ball. Barry is left standing breathless on the shore, dripping wet in his "tighty whities." Next he wanders up to a bus stop where he finds a squashed and very dead frog. Playing Sniff the Frog on his hands and knees, he comes face to face with a massive wall of flowers that "spread as far as the eye could see." As he nuzzles his nose into the "soft middle of the big pillowy wall," he discovers that he is smelling the behind of a lady dressed in a floral dress. She whacks him in the chest with her shopping bag and calls him a "disgusting boy" while at the same time a bystander jabs him in the ribs with a "pointy" shoe and says he is "an animal."
It gets worse. Barry is attacked by a pack of telepathic squirrels. Then his best friends, the Brothers, run away screaming from him when they see the rabid look in his eyes. But Barry boyhound catches up with the slower Brother, wraps himself around his leg, bites his ankle making him cry "as much in pain as in disbelief," and proudly prances home with his friend's sneaker. Finally, when Barry takes off after the family cat, breaks his mother's favourite bedroom lamp, and tears his sister's school art project (a marionette) into shreds, his mother gets mad, demands to know what has gotten into him, and wonders how she could have such an evil child. A chase ensues in the backyard. Barry takes off down the driveway, and runs onto the street and into the path of on oncoming car. However, as the author promises in the forward, "everything ends up pretty okay."
Barry, Boyhound is Andy Spearman's first work of fiction. The wanna-be rock star, who says on the book's dust jacket that he is a lousy guitar player anyway and his "bum doesn't look anything like Jon Bon Jovi's," has pulled out all the creative stops in writing this VERY different, bizarre, zany, hilariously funny, entertaining, and at times gross but not too gross story. Spearman's engaging and conversational style, a narrative that is interspersed with and broken up by tidbits of factual information and meanings of words and a layout that teases the eye, make this a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
Barry, Boyhound seems to be set in a present-day small town; no name is given. However Spearman does mention Lake Erie, and, because he lives in Toronto , the location may very well be in Ontario. As the narrator and raconteur, Spearman frequently talks to his readers. His many asides and interjections give the story a theatrical feel reminiscent of Shakespearean plays which proves to be an effective technique for building a rapport with his "audience." He brings the reader in on the action and gives a "heads up" on what is going to happen next. Here is one of many humourous examples:
Listen: I get the feeling that some weird dog stuff is about to happen to Barry, and I need to save up my energy. So I'm going to go have a little snooze now, and while I'm gone Mrs. Barry's Mom would like to say something. I have no idea what she wants to talk about, but she seems like a nice lady, so please sit up straight, listen with both ears, no talking, no snoring, and no picking your nose unless you're absolutely positive nobody can see.
Spearman masterfully uses simile to convey a moment or situation in terms that his readers will understand. For example, Barry's reaction to his mother's demands for an explanation for his behaviour "was as slow as a dentist's office, as slow as a new bottle of ketchup, and as slow as a Strawberry Pop-Tart in an unplugged toaster."
Spearman flips the story back and forth from Barry's antics to an ongoing conversation and a burping contest between two fleas "up there on Barry's head." As they discuss their hopes and dreams lounging around on springy bits of dandruff, Flea One and Flea Two keep the story moving. They also add comic relief when things get serious or whenever there is a lull in the action, such as when Barry is lost in his thoughts and considers the advantages of "this being-a-boyhound business" (no homework, no snowpants, no cleaning up your room, no gagging on broccoli, no dental floss) or when he drifts off into "gentle doggie dreamland," snuggled up on the rug at the foot of his bed. Flea One discloses that he wants to join the circus and be a tightrope-walker under the name "the Great Flealini." Flea Two, who is afraid of heights, admits that he wants to become a mosquito ("being a flea sucks").
The layout of the book is clever. The type is big and bold; each of the 18 chapter numbers takes up a quarter of the page; words leap out of the text; trivia is highlighted in boxes and side bars ("What You Should Know before Eating Any Worms"). There is a table of contents, a list of illustrations, a forward and forewarned section, and a list of characters entitled, "dramatis personae" phonetically footnoted as "DRAW-mah-tiss per-SOH-nay" followed by its meaning. This is the pattern Spearman uses throughout the book to define such words as "oreobotomy" or "OR-ee-oh-BOT-to-mee: the surgically precise removal of an oreo cream centre." For easy reference, an index lists all of the animals, contraptions and inventions, food, famous people, science and math, and sports activities that are highlighted in the story. An epilogue reveals what eventually happens to the characters post Barry, Boyhound, followed by six appendices including how to make five different kinds of peanut butter sandwiches.
Spearman's intended readers in the nine-to-twelve-year-old age group will identify with the book's universal themes of friendship, family life, sibling rivalry, growing up (Barry's number one wish in life was to be big) and wondering what it would be like to be someone or something else (sort of wanting to be dog was Barry's third wish). Barry, who looks to be about ten or eleven years of age, is a believable and to-be-admired main character. After all, he does eat a worm and gets covered in maggots. He is a hero who survives his ordeal and in doing so realizes that his family is not so bad after all, even his sister. There is also a lesson to be learned from Flea One and Flea Two. As the insects work through what they want to do with their lives, by the end of the story they have discovered how to respect, not criticize or laugh, at each other's decisions.
There are two weaknesses in Barry, Boyhound. Firstly, there is too much non-fiction information that at times annoyingly breaks up the reader's train of thought and involvement with the story. It is very easy to get sidetracked from what is happening to Barry, which may be good for readers with short attention spans. Perhaps Spearman thought of this when he suggests in his "forward and forewarned," that the reader should not feel compelled to read his entire story all at once - "you can read it in bits and pieces; it's entirely up to you." Secondly, and more crucial to the effectiveness of the novel are the disappointing, dull, and dated black and white photographs that take away from the quality of Spearman's writing. In fact, many of the fifty-two illustrations, sketches, and boxed lists of information could have been enhanced with some colour. After all, children today live in a very sophisticated, visual and colourful world.
Nevertheless, Barry, Boyhound is an easy-to-read, well-written, fun, and original story that will appeal to the imaginations of many young readers who have ever thought about what it would like to be a dog. At the same time, it is also the perfect book for reluctant readers and information-oriented children who are fascinated with facts and trivia and who gravitate towards the unusual and things that are weird and wacky with a little bathroom humour thrown in for good measure.
Lois Brymer is a former publicist and recent graduate of the University of British Columbia 's Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program.
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