Friday, March 27, 2015

Everybody Sees the Ants

I almost deleted this whole review because I thought I would spoil the book.  Plus, I'm still working through it myself, so ...

Plus plus (doubleplus?  Doubleplusplus?) I have difficulty writing about books I truly enjoyed.  But here goes...



Who would have thought that Vietnam soldiers who are MIA would go so well with a storyline about bullying?  Well, obviously A.S. King did.  And it totally, completely works.


Lucky Linderman is fifteen, a freshman, and under the watchful eyes of innumerable adults who are convinced he's suicidal.  So yeah, he decided to do his social studies survey on "how would you commit suicide?" but that doesn't mean he's suicidal.  Does it?

All Lucky wants is for nosy adults to leave him alone and for his parents to actually be present in his life.  Dad is a hotshot chef who's always off at the restaurant or watching Food Network, and mom copes with dad's absence by compulsively swimming 250 laps a day.  They know that Nolan, another kid at school, has been bullying Lucky for years, but they don't do much about it.  After all, Nolan's dad is a lawyer.  A rich, bullying lawyer who's got everyone cowed.

Actually, scratch that: all Lucky really wants is for someone to validate him and to stand up for him.  He needs an ally, but people would much rather poke,  prod, and study him than give him support.

One day, after a particularly vicious attack at the pool by Nolan, Lucky's mom decides that they both need to leave dad for a bit and visit her brother, Lucky's Uncle Dave, in Arizona.  In the summer.  When it's like nine thousand degrees.  Lucky knows they're going there just for the pool, but whatever.  At least he'll get to hang out with his uncle, who seems pretty cool.  Actually, he's like the dad Lucky wishes he had.  Dave teaches him how to lift weights and seems genuinely interested in his welfare.  On the other hand, his aunt Jodi, who flits from diet to diet, belief system to belief system, is convinced that every smile of Lucky's hides malicious intent, while every scowl ... does the same.  The kid can't catch a break.

This is a book that has so many nuances and important scenes that fit together like clockwork that it would be neither helpful nor practical for me to talk about all of them.  Instead, suffice it to say that Lucky works through his real-life issues, but he couldn't do it without his grandfather, who's been MIA in Vietnam since the war.

Lucky dreams of his grandfather.  When his grandma died, she charged Lucky to bring Grandpa home.  After that, the dreams began.  Lucky finds Grandpa a prisoner in the jungle.  He must dodge traps, and later, begins setting his own.  But no matter how close they are to escape, Lucky always fails to rescue his grandfather.

The only way I could reconcile the two story lines was to read Lucky's Vietnam dreams as real.  Every time he wakes up, he has a physical token representing something that happened in the dream, and he hides them in his room.  At one point, his mother quietly acknowledges that she knows of these tokens' existence.  The conversations with his grandfather serve as surrogates for those he would have had with his father; Grandpa teaches him lots of Life Lessons, which I know sounds incredibly tacky but it's true, so just deal with it.

I sat and read this in one sitting--it's that engrossing.  King provides just the right amount of hope at the end to prevent this from veering into fantasy schmaltz.

Oh--and I almost forgot about the ants!  While reading, I was so glad that this wasn't around when I was in high school, because my English teacher would have had us examine every single instance of symbolism in this book (which is pretty much the whole book).  Anyway, After an encounter with fire ants in dream-Vietnam, Lucky starts seeing ... ants.  In real, awake life.  This is, at first, mildly alarming, but they soon become a normal part of his life.  Yet, he can't help but wonder if this means that he's got serious issues.  Why does he see ants in the grocery store passing out warm clothing for people to wear in the frozen food aisle?  Just remember the title, and you'll understand soon enough.




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