by Ryan Boudinot
Reviewed by Kristin Thiel
Turning the last page of Misconception, you'll be certain that you love Seattle author Ryan Boudinot's style. Oh, you'll like the story fine. It sends readers bouncing into long swoops and back again, the volcano-boarding of this year's literary fiction. In other words, the fun kind of crazy, and vice versa. But the way Boudinot chooses to snap together words into description and dialogue is where he excels.
The story's abuse, alcohol use and relative brutality and friendship in growing up remain stuck in Washington state and frozen upstate New York. After Misconception closes, primary narrator Cedar remains a boy who loves science and the strange girl in his class. The girl, secondary narrator Kat, is another kid from another messed-up family who grows up to write a book about that childhood and its people, including Cedar. But the truth from Boudinot's book doesn't come in the form of a traditional plot climax, though it has one, or from a reunion of star-crossed love, because it doesn't have that.
Instead, what does not freeze within the geography of pages, what instead relentlessly follows a reader, is Boudinot's writing skill: The sardonic image of a priest flicking jelly beans for young Kat to chase around his office while her mother is at a church-basement AA meeting. And a lovely passage about what it's like to meet a grade school friend as a thirtysomething adult: "That period, when I would have most enjoyed getting to know Kat, when both of us were most interesting and consumed with unrealistic plans, was a comatose pause between us. Our initial, pubescent compatibility had degraded....This flavor of strangeness, this witnessing of the momentum of another person's ripening and the onslaught of decay...."
When Cedar and his parents talk over each other, the chaos isn't what's funny. What's funny is the deft weaving of one person's question about Cedar bringing sperm to biology class show-and-tell with another's answer about the ice cream's freezer burn. In another scene, Kat's mother keeps the cap to the perfume bottle she smashed against Kat's father's head -- no detail is a throwaway. Cedar and Kat, and Cedar and his other friend Paul, lead distinct family lives yet there's a subtle synchronicity between the members of each pair, their situations something like an infant's mouth around an adult's finger: "pink, toothless, grinding mountain ranges."
Boudinot slips only a little. He doesn't play with sentence structure and length except for one notable time, when Kat shares the story of her mother leaving her father. It works perfectly in that context, and though it would lose its power had Boudinot used it too much, other scenes could have supported a change in style.
Most of Boudinot's descriptions act in reverse: the reader says not, "that's common and therefore dull," but "that's common, but I didn't know it even existed." The old is both familiar and new, and that is one of this book's -- and any good book's -- most satisfying gifts.