Sunday, October 7, 2007

My faith in fiction, restored, by Mark Jude Poirier

It used to be that every book was like a fabulous vacation, the kind that offered not only new scenery but new perspectives, new ways of thinking of things. Yet lately, most of the books I've been reading have been less like trips to the Alps and more like the camping trips where it rained all the time. You dragged your soggy, sand-logged butt home after a few days having gained nothing except a deeper appreciation for the miracles of dry socks and sand-free blankets, and trying not to think about the things you lost, whether it was a couple of hundred dollars or the opportunity to do something better.

I almost thought there were no more trips left. I thought maybe I couldn't be moved by literature anymore, that I'd turned into the exact kind of boring adult that I swore I never would. And worse, I was almost ready to embrace my fate, on the verge of tearing up my library card and redoubling my efforts to take a sincere interest in mortgage-refinance and window treatments. But then, something wonderful happened. I picked up Goats by Mark Jude Poirier. I started it Friday night and stayed up with it later than I should have. I spent as much time with it as I could yesterday, thinking about it constantly when I wasn't reading, and I finished it this morning. I'm back, baby!

Poirier was one of the authors from my western fiction collection from a couple of months back. In my earlier post, I said that I was a little unsure as to why his story was selected, as it didn't strike me as being terribly tied to the west, but that I loved it nonetheless. So on my next trip, I hunted up books by some of my favorites from that anthology, and they had Goats.

This book, as it features a 14-year-old protagonist, is destined to be pegged as a coming-of-age tale. Poirier makes it hard to be that simplistic though: at 14, Ellis already has adult bad habits and adult responsibilities. His biological father, Fucker Frank, is long gone. He lives with his mother, Wendy, who is blessed with a wealthy stepfather and cursed with serious emotional problems that have made it impossible for her to hold on to a job (although we don't get the sense she tried) or a relationship. Ellis spent most of his time with Goat Man, who lives in their pool house, takes care of the grounds and raises goats and weed. He's been smoking Goat Man's weed since he was 11 and taking care of Wendy's bills even longer.

So, does Ellis "come of age" in this story? I would argue that he simply makes some choices about where his life is headed. It could've happened to Ellis at 30, or it could have never happened at all. Ellis starts to question the basic assumption that resides in Fucker Frank's moniker. He also makes a break from the unconventional homestead, to attend a prep school in the east (Wendy and Goat Man live near Tuscon). He excels at school, befriends his dorky roommate, joins crew, and develops a crush on a server. The story continues on the home front, too: Wendy falls in love with weaselly Bennett, and moves him in to her house, who disturbs the peaceful micro-world of the house. Goat Man senses a change deep inside himself, and begins swimming laps and shaves off his long hair.

The two tales come together during Ellis's breaks from school, first his Christmas break, then his spring break. During his spring break, he and Goat Man make a trek to Mexico together and discover that they've changed and have to learn to relate to one another differently.

I highly recommend this one, and judging by his Amazon sales, so do many others: all of his titles are nearly out of stock and well-reviewed.

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