Sunday, September 24, 2006

Schrödinger’s Ball by Adam Felber

Warning: crappy first draft ahead

You don’t need a Ph.D. to enjoy Adam Felber’s debut novel, Schrödinger’s Ball, but having some understanding about physics will help to get all the jokes. In particular, it helps to know at least about the famous thought experiment of Dr. Erwin Schrödinger, who was competing with Heisenberg to determine what was going on with electrons. Luckily, Felber adds an unscientific history of the scientific debate (read pissing contest) that occurred between the two prominent physicists. After Heisenberg developed what became known as the Uncertainty Principle, Schrödinger created a cat, who was stuck in a box along with a device that will release radiation if anyone checks to see if the cat is dead. So the cat was both alive and dead – and not alive and not dead. Or something like that.

Schrödinger’s Ball starts with the unobserved death of Johnny Felix Decate (while cleaning a gun); at the same time, the president of Montana (yes, he seceded and set up his own country, which essentially included his own property -- on which he was late paying his U.S. taxes). Soon after, we find Johnny hanging with his gang; he’s our cat. Johnny and his friends Grant, Deb, and Arlene are drinking in Cambridge, Massachusetts (home of Harvard). Aside from Johnny’s ability to exist beyond his death, he and his friends have other talents. He may not be the brightest man in the world, but people will follow him. Deb experiences extended orgasms -- a half-hour is not outrageous for this happy woman. But she has no experience in love. Grant is brilliant but socially inept -- especially around Deb, who he quietly loves. Arlene is capable of much love, but is otherwise a killjoy.

In addition to defying death, Johnny has virtuoso guitar talents that turn him into a sort of messiah of music, with crowds of worshipping teens following him wherever he and his friends go. And Professor Schrödinger populates the streets of Cambridge as well, even though he died in 1961. Or is it Schrödinger? Does he always leave you with the check? And where are those cat meows coming from?

In a sense, the story is surprisingly predictable, in that you soon know that Grant will get the girl of his dreams (Deb). You’re pretty certain that neither Johnny nor Schrödinger are actually alive. But there are enough twists and turns and goofy secondary characters to keep those pages turning. (If no one sees you read, are you actually learning anything?)

This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys a goofy tale. And despite my comment about its predictability, it is also unconventional and its resolutions uncertain. Get your electrons moving and check it out.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall

When you’ve had your head squished into the hot gravel by the tire of a postal truck as a child, life ought to get better. But for seven-year-old Edgar P. Mint, life has only just begun, and his miracle survival of the accident was one of the easiest achievements of his life. Half Apache/half white, the young boy finds himself struggling to balance the life he lives and the life he lost as a result of the accident at the beginning of Brady Udall’s 2006 bildungsroman.

As far as Edgar is concerned, he grew up in a hospital bed; he has virtually no recollection of his accident –- except for what others have told him. During his several months of convalescence in a hospital, Edgar befriends one of his roommates -- Art Crozier, whose wife and daughter died as a result of his drunken driving. Edgar also meets Barry Pinkley, who was the doctor on call who refused to let the injured Indian die.

And the hospital is his home. Art, his other roommates, and the nurses form the basis of his family, replacing his alcoholic mother he doesn’t remember and the grandmother who was the only person who cried or prayed for him after the accident – as far as he’s aware.

But the hospital is also a place of ghosts, which he wards off with a pilfered urinal freshener. As is the William Tecumseh Sherman School for Native American orphans, located at the former Fort Apache, where his education takes place. The almost constant torment to which Edgar is subjected at “Willie Sherman” shapes his lonely, tribeless adolescence. Even when he becomes a part of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and is assigned to a (dysfunctional) Mormon family, ghosts and shadows of his past surround him.

But it’s the real people Udall fleshes out, giving nuance and subtlety to what could have been two-dimensional characters in lesser hands. Dr. Pinkley, for example, is dismissed and becomes a drug dealer, but throughout the rest of his life he remains one of the few constant presences in Edgar’s life (often to the boy’s dismay). Through Pinkley’s doing, even Edgar’s mother briefly reappears. Moreover, Udall writes with a wicked sense of humor that makes the pages of sometimes awful images seemingly turn themselves

Despite all the travails of his torturous life, Edgar’s tale ultimately holds hope for the future, and through the Mormons he discovers his life’s purpose: to find the mailman who ran him over and let him know he survived and is all right; indeed, to offer him forgiveness. After Edgar leaves the Mormons, most of the nagging inconsistencies of his past find resolution, courtesy of a bingo-playing woman in Pennsylvania.

Edgar Mint’s is not always a tidy story, but when you’ve got road pebbles falling out of your head as a child, perhaps it’s best to learn to suffer through the difficult times.