Picks and Pans Review: Rule of the Bone
Veteran novelist Banks has finally done it: He has written the Great American Novel. Or, to be more precise, he has rewritten it. Rule of the Bone is Huckleberry Finn transposed to Upstate New York in the '90s, the tale of a white boy fleeing his depressed, small-minded hometown. He travels to Jamaica, where he finds emotional sustenance in the company of a ganja-smoking Rastafarian.
It's an audacious move, appropriating Mark Twain's masterpiece, and Banks wisely makes his indebtedness plain. Like Huck, Rule's 14-year-old hero, Chappie, has been abandoned by his drunk of a dad. Chappie's trailer-dwelling mom, like Huck's Miss Watson, is kind but clueless. (Worried by Chappie's petty thefts, she points to his stepfather—who has molested Chappie since childhood—as a model of virtue.) Huck fakes his own death before heading downriver with Jim; Chappie hits the road and meets the Jamaican I-Man (J.I.M....could it be coincidence?) after everyone assumes he has died in a video-store fire.
There is method, of course, to Banks's mimicry. By reinventing Huck, he can explore how little (and how much) the perils of American boyhood have changed in 110 years. Like his predecessor, Chappie—who changes his name to Bone so he'll feel tougher—is groping toward maturity in a corrupt world among adults who appear convinced that, as he puts it, "what was right was what you could get away with and what was wrong was what you couldn't."
Banks, who is also the author of Affliction (1989) and Continental Drift (1985), excels at portraying lives on the edge. For kids like Chappie, who finds his father only to discover that he is a murderer, growing up is mostly about disillusionment, and we feel his in our bones. Banks has called society's neglect of children "unintended cultural suicide." In Rule of the Bone he gives us a searing wake-up call. (HarperCollins, $22)
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