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dead end in norvelt

30 january 2012

"Think about it," a friend tells narrator Jack Gantos about 2/3 of the way through Dead End in Norvelt. "This is the one summer of your life when you did nothing!" (217) Unfortunately this is how the reader feels about the plot of the novel at this point, too.

Dead End in Norvelt, the 2012 Newbery Medal winner, is literate, whimsical, witty, and energetic, but it lacks a story. It's a novel of ideas about America – a farrago of ideas, really, and I mean that in the best sense. There's a tradition of overpacking in American fiction that goes back to Breckenridge's American Chivalry and continues through Melville's Mardi to writers as disparate as John Dos Passos and Don DeLillo (think of Underworld). Gantos's Norvelt – the writer uses his real name and that of his real home town – is a microcosm of the larger polity, with all its crazinesses, tensions, and potentials. The result is a mess, but one which offers a lot to think about, and might repay re-reading. But like most messes, the first time through is a tough slog.

It seems like there should be a bang-up plot somewhere in Dead End in Norvelt. Among the elements stranded together are a bizarre series of poisonings, marauding Hells Angels, joyriding in old aircraft, digging a bomb shelter, real-estate skullduggery, and a romance worthy of García Márquez's El amor en los tiempos del cólera. But as in so many recent Newbery Medalists, the wacky contents aren't held together by any interlocking set of motives and desires. Protagonist Jack Gantos is "grounded" for his whole summer vacation (1962, the summer he turns 12), and his goal would seem to be getting ungrounded, but he rarely spends any time at home anyway, because the feckless, daft adults of Norvelt keep engaging him in their zany schemes.

Nobody's fecklesser or more daft than his own parents. Dead End in Norvelt continues a theme from Gantos's Joey Pigza series: adults are really big children themselves; they never mature and never offer you any real help in growing up. They may be a little higher-verbal and better with machinery than 11-year-olds, but they make up for that by being into mind-altering substances and having longer to let their predilections grow into obsessive compulsions. (Also like Joey Pigza [with his ADHD], Jack Gantos has an inhibiting condition: a tendency to nosebleeds that puts him constantly at risk of gushing when confronting the vicissitudes of the weird world of Norvelt.)

Norvelt, the extremely dysfunctional community at the heart of the novel, is a utopia gone wrong. Built as a "subsistence homestead" community in the 1930s – at the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt – the town has fallen on hard times three decades later. The spirit of communitarianism has ceded to fears of the spectre of communism; the local barter economy has ceded to the cash nexus. Jack's mother expresses nostalgia for the old Norveltian ways, but only Miss Volker, the medical examiner who also writes lingering, lyrical obituaries for those she pronounces dead, really keeps trying to live Eleanor Roosevelt's dream in practice.

Jack becomes Miss Volker's obituary typist (and his grounding is lifted every time there's a death, so considering the bizarre series of poisonings, he's out every day). He also imbibes Miss Volker's incidental history lessons, which give him a cultural-critical perspective on his Landmark books. (Like the hero of every single Newbery Medal book, Jack Gantos is an avid reader.) Miss Volker has a decidedly contrarian, leftist interpretation of American history. In fact Jack grows up in 1962 with basically a 21st-century understanding of the role of gender, ethnic diversity, and social class in the United States. I'm tempted to dismiss this as an ascription of more enlightened attitudes to historical characters who wouldn't really have possessed them. But it's just possible that Miss Volker is enough of a spokesperson for values of the Old Left that she proleptically holds the views that would become commonplace in mainstream, or at least center-left, thought of the Obama years. More to the point, she holds views that would get a stamp of approval from the American Library Association.

In any case, the anachronistic politics of Dead End in Norvelt bothered me far less than its digressiveness, discursiveness, and general inability to generate a plot till it was almost over. It expends its energies in dozens of different directions. Kids may be stimulated by this scattershot approach to American culture, or they may simply long to be reading something with an adventure plot instead. Paradoxically, Gantos's zany high-octane children's book turns out to be as placid as many another Newbery winner at heart.

Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar, 2011.