CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 16. . . .December 21, 2012
These are the opening clues in the mystery that moves the plot of Bill Bunn's first novel, Duckboy. Steve's mother's disappearance causes inner chaos for her teenage son and adds to the misery he's already experiencing. At school, his nickname is Duck Boy, earned when he tried to save a duck that was frozen into a pond on school property. After his mother disappears, Steve starts to fail everything. It's more than a year since his mother disappeared when the principal calls his father in and says that, if they can't turn Steve around in the month after Christmas, he'll have to repeat his grade.
Christmas break is at hand, which should bring some relief for Steve, but his father hasn't been functioning well since Steve's mother left either. Worse, Dad is being sent away for work for the entire Christmas break. Steve must spend the holiday with an aunt and uncle who are strange to say the least. It takes Steve pounding on their door forever before it's opened, and when it is, Aunt Shannon doesn't even recognize him, and Uncle Edward's nose is always in a book. He barely notices Steve is there.
Aunt Shannon is into alchemy, and she informs Steve that his mother was too. She tells him alchemy is about change. It has limitless possibilities. It can change one thing into another.
"I can prove that this much is true — and so could many others. But don't think it stops there. It may be about transforming time. It might be used to change one kind of place into another. Best of all, it could even have something to do with changing human beings — are you listening, Steve?"
Aunt Shannon tells Steve she needs his help, but he isn't interested. She tells him he must take up the family tradition of alchemy because he's the only one left to do it. She thinks his mother's research notebook, which she told Steve to bring with him when he came, will help them bring his mother back. It's all too much for Steve who bursts into tears and declares his mother left because she didn't want him. His mother is gone. There's no bringing her back.
Uncle Edward warns Aunt Shannon against dabbling in alchemy. According to Uncle Edward, their son, Richard, died when he was very young because of alchemy. Hearing his aunt and uncle talk like this increases the negativity and fear Steve feels. So does the fact that the room he's given was Richard's. Steve discovers this fact when he finds a box of what he thinks is sand among his aunt's collectibles. It's not sand, his aunt tells him, it's Richard's ashes. He begs his aunt to take them somewhere else.
While it's Christmas, there's no Christmas spirit in this house. When Aunt Shannon decides to put up an artificial tree she and Uncle Edward have not put up for years, she decorates it with ornaments all made by Richard. She also wraps the box of Richard's ashes like a gift and puts it under the tree. When Uncle Edward sees the tree and decorations, he isn't pleased. Christmas will be even bleaker than Steve imagined it would.
The men who attack Steve's aunt are determined to get whatever secrets of alchemy she knows from her. They are evil beings, led by a man called Mr. Gold. They are able to travel freely between the ‘real world' and their underworld, where people are dismembered piece by piece. Steve's aunt says they've come to her house before, and they will return.
But before Steve meets them again in the ‘real world', he finds himself in theirs. He loses a finger before he ‘wakes up' and escapes. The evil ones intend to get him back. According to them, Steve agreed to let them take him apart. He belongs to them. They come back to his aunt's house and destroy it. Then Steve's aunt and uncle disappear. Next, Steve's home is destroyed. To top it off, these underworld beings aren't the only antagonists looking for Steve. The local police are also after him for crimes he didn't commit. There is simply nowhere for him to go.
Enter Lindsay Locket. Lindsay is staying with her father for the holidays in the house across the street from Steve's aunt's house. Lindsay is interested in alchemy and knows his aunt. Steve has never talked to Lindsay, but he knows that she knows what his aunt was into. And now she's Steve's only hope for refuge. But her father, a far less than admirable man, wants nothing more than to send his daughter back to her mother as fast as he can. He doesn't allow Lindsay to have ‘guests'.
Duckboy is a coming of age story, full of twists and turns and quirky characters. Bunn uses alchemy as a metaphor for the change Steve Best, a young teen, goes through as he endures his own, unique trial by fire.
Readers are asked to suspend their disbelief to follow Steve through a series of events in the ‘real world' that result in three smashed homes, three more people disappearing, including Steve's aunt, uncle and Lindsay, and a daring rescue by a teenage boy. Readers are also asked to follow him to an underworld where things, and people, are dismembered piece by piece. However, neither the story nor the characters are credible or engaging enough for this reader to want to suspend her disbelief and follow him.
Steve's troubles at school, the personal turmoil his mother's disappearance causes him, his father's inability to cope, are reality-based problems. But the adults who surround him, including his teachers, his father, his aunt and uncle, the police officer Steve connects with, and Mr. Gold and the other evil beings in the underworld, are all cut-outs. None of them behaves in a remotely adult way. His teacher, Mr. Pollock, denigrates Steve repeatedly. The principal has no compassion whatsoever for a boy who has lost his mother. Mr. Gold and the rest of the evil ones from the underworld supposedly will not stop at anything to get the alchemy information they want. But when they confront Aunt Shannon, they are ineffectual. And though they can travel between worlds, when trapped they do not escape. The police officer who decides Steve is the culprit behind the destruction in the houses and the disappearances is nicknamed Clueless, and he is.
The lack of worthy antagonists and a plausible plot results in a lack of any real tension in the book, and a corresponding lack of depth. There are problems piled on problems and movie-set scenes involving life and death chases, but the whole comes across as a kind of cartoon, without the humour cartoons employ to engage and hold their audience. The bo'ok might well have been judiciously cut by at least a hundred pages.
The bright spot is the protagonist. Written as a kind of anti-hero, timid to the point of being paralyzed by fear—of everything—Steve is first presented as an advocate for a helpless duck. He challenges the bullies who would stone the duck to death and fights to save it. So readers know he has some strength. His constant self-belittling does become tiresome, but he is not unlikable.
While young readers may respond to Steve's internal dilemmas and the fast-paced chase scenes, I doubt they will have the patience to wade through this entire text.
Recommended with reservations.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher who lives in Campbell River, BC.
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