Many of today’s books and movies are devoted to the action of the story, having characters who seem mere puppets designed to fit the needs of the plot. But in Falling Boy there is the exact opposite. It has a negligible plot and focuses almost exclusively upon developing the three main characters.
What action there is pivots around Joseph, a sixteen-year-old boy who has suffered an injury, disabling his legs. Because of this he is forced to use a wheelchair. At the beginning of the novel, he is working in a bakery in Minneapolis, kept company by Zap, a gregarious fellow worker, and Enzo, a young girl who is a regular customer of the bakery. These two have a strange feud which provides much of the action, surfacing in snide comments and other forms of antagonism. Most of the novel centers on the relationship between the three children.
Falling Boy by Alison McGhee. Published by Picador USA (2007). $13.
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Enzo creates an imaginary world of her own and seems unable to distinguish it from the actual world around her. In her world she is known as “Mighty Thor,” and the annoying Zap does not exist. She projects an elaborate fantasy around Joseph, insisting that he is a superhero and is only pretending that his legs are useless. Despite his repeated denials, she continues to believe in it, and becomes angry with him for not conceding the correctness of her view.
Zap is extremely loquacious, constantly pouring out a stream of talk and easily dominating any conversation. He instinctively empathizes with other people and is well liked by the other characters, Enzo being the exception. He forms a close friendship with Joseph, helping him to overcome his problems.
The consequences of Joseph’s leg injury are explored throughout the novel. At first he is somewhat despondent, the more so as the accident is connected to his mother, something which is not fully explained until close to the end. Over time, he comes to realize that it is pointless to live in the past and begins to address himself more to present concerns, summing this up in the memorable climactic sentence: “This is where I am now.”
The story shows an interesting unconcern for material facts, with the author focusing mainly on how her characters perceive reality. This can be somewhat confusing because major plot details are left until close to the end, such as the real story behind Joseph’s accident, and the reason for the dislike that Zap and Enzo feel for each other. The story at times assumes a dreamy, surreal quality.
Falling Boy is an interesting and skillfully crafted novel, but it obviously will not appeal to everyone. It is a must-have for those who enjoy interesting characters, but I would not recommend it to people who prefer vigorous action and a strong plot.
Cyrus Wolff is homeschooled in Princeton and studies classic literature, focusing on nineteenth century fiction. He is a book reviewer for Amazon.com and writes short stories and essays.