Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book Review: The Monster Variations by Daniel Kraus

Title: The Monster Variations

Author: Daniel Kraus

Pages: 245


Someone is killing boys in a small town. The murder weapon is a truck, and the only protection is a curfew enacted to keep kids off the streets. But it's summer—and that alone is worth the risk of staying out late for James, Willie, and Reggie.

Willie, who lost his arm in the first hit-and-run attack, finds it hard to keep up with his two best friends as they leave childhood behind. All of them are changing, hounded by their parents, hunted by the killer, and haunted by the "monster," a dead thing that guards the dangerous gateway between youth and manhood. But that's not all: shadowing the boys everywhere is Mel Herman, the mysterious and brilliant bully whose dark secrets may hold the key to their survival. As the summer burns away, these forces collide, and it will take compassion, brains, and guts for the boys to overcome their demons—and not become monsters themselves.

In this chilling and poignant debut novel, Daniel Kraus deftly explores the choices boys grapple with and the revelations that occur as they become men.

The Monster Variations opens with a college-bound boy named James, finally escaping the grip of his over-bearing parents and stifling small town. He's packed and ready to go, leaving a day early to avoid a trek towards his college town with either his mother or father, when he stops at a gas station. There, he happens upon an old childhood friend, Reggie.

After some uncomfortable small talk, Reggie says to James a seemingly unspoken question that sets the story in motion:

"You remember the truck?"

The reader is then taken back six years, the fateful summer of twelve year old Willie Van Allen and his missing arm.

While walking home one day, Willie suddenly finds himself crunched beneath a speading truck, his shoulder here and his arm there. The act of a madman, no doubt, a deadly act that repeats itself weeks later to another boy Willie's, leading the grown-ups of the small town to assume the work of a serial killer. A curfew is put forth--all kids must be indoors by eight o'clock.

Willie, undaunted by his missing arm, can only mourn, along with his friends Reggie and James, the death of summer. With the looming threat of the old silver truck running down kids and the dark cloud of crumbling families, the boys must scramble towards adulthood--a journey that Daniel Kraus turns into something to be feared.

Kraus' debut novel is, in my opinion, very loosly labeled under "young adult". However, only a strange variation of teenagers with a love of Stephan King could conceivably enjoy The Monster Variations--not to say this is a bad thing.

Like a King novel with the supernatural terror taken away, The Monster Variations is a heartwrentching, often frightening, coming-of-age tale that too well depicts the seperation of grade school "blood brothers" over a single summer, something I'm sure most people can relate to. The plot has a surreal edge that leaves you questioning the narrator's reliability. Often the events in the book are shrouded by a twelve-year-olds naivity, turning things that most adults would find unthreatening into something terrifying. The prose is flawless in it's purpose, to display growing up in desperate circumstances by multiple third person narrators. Kraus has the rare talent of making something that could be viewed as a corny version of King's The Body (otherwise known for it's film adaption, Stand By Me) into a heartbreakingly honest protrayel of the accidental maturation of four boys who just don't want to grow up.

The "monster" in the Monster Variations is purely figurative--for what, you'd have to ask the author. It could be seen as how real everything seems when your younger, and when everything you believed for so long is proven false, it's like your childhood has melted away. Maybe it's some kind of metaphor for the dark side of small town life. Maybe it's just a plot device set in place to bring on the realization that childhood friends can't stay childhood friends forever. I don't know, and I won't attempt to understand Kraus' reasoning. All I have are my theories, and it takes a pretty good author to leave you satisfied with your confusion.

The characters themselves can at first be described with one to two word adjectives--over-achiever James, meek-but-eager Willie, and Tough Guy Reggie. All with their own demons that they believe none of the others will understand. Not much in Variations is completley surprising, but the way Kraus excecutes the actions of his characters leaves you breathless, heartbroken and strangely understanding. What really stands out is Willie, who is unable to accept his friends' rapidley approaching maturity. In fact, he can't seem to grasp the fact that everyone has to grow up, including him. It's like his missing arm has taken a key part of himself with it. A particularly painful scene involves Willie out on a simple task, one that he pitifully botches.

Overall, The Monster Variations is a heartwrenching novel in the vein of Stephan King small town-terror, one that will keep you riveted till the very last page.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Also: You might want to check out Stand By Me, a film based off of the Stephen King novella The Body, one that I thought of all throughout the Variations.


Jenny said...

Sounds interesting! And GREAT review!!

GreenFairyLV said...

What a great detailed review. This sounds like a book even boys might like a lot. The whole story sounds interesting.

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