Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 9:02 AM

Rating: 4/5 stars.

I'll admit it: I didn't want to like this book. It had a lot to do with the reviews -- one described it as a modern-day, slightly twisted Catcher in the Rye, which makes my list of 'Classic Books that I Hate With a Mixture of Defiance and Guilt' (you all have these lists, right?). Plus, all of the reviews were just glowing about this book that was:
  • 1/3 part fantasy-fest, with talking lawn gnomes/ancient Vikings in disguise, a hypochondriac dwarf, a punk-rock angel with spray-painted wings and giant, seven-foot tall fire demons;
  • 1/3 part philosophical meditation on the meaning of life, with a dying protagonist struggling to understand an impossibly random universe;
  • 1/3 part head-trip crazyfest, since our hero is actually dying of Mad Cow disease and has been entrusted with a mission/road trip to save the universe (our universe, at least). Oh, and find a mysterious Dr. X, a time-traveling figure who can supposedly cure him.

Kind of a lot to live up to.

So I approached with a hefty dose of skepticism and the tiniest nigglings of hope. And in the beginning, I Doth Doubteth Much. Cameron isn't an easy guy to like -- he's made it his mission to be pretty much invisible, coasting through high school and life with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of sarcasm. He's smart but apathetic, self-aware enough to be interesting but still grating -- he typecasts everyone, including himself (father = control freak; sister = perfectionist; mother = 'driftwood,' just like him). I could see the Holden comparison, and I wasn't charmed.

But then, once his life is ground up and mashed with the bovine death-sentence prognosis and the hallucinations and the sudden Quest to Save Everyone, and he stumbles off on the Road Trip of Cracktastic Events, something happened that pulled me in, despite myself -- Cameron begins to care.

And gosh darn it, I started to care with him. Curse you, Libba Bray.

This book isn't especially subtle -- some of the messages are pretty heavy-handed, with encounters that just scream 'metaphor' and 'allegory' and all that symbolic goodness. Plus, there are tons of references to the granddaddy of Crazy Random Journey with Deeper Societal/Philosophical Meanings, Don Quixote, the assigned book in Cameron's Spanglish class. It's also a pretty crowded work; Libba Bray is pulling on a lot of strings here, and if things feel a little disjointed or contrived, it's more impressive that it doesn't all fall apart. But I have to admit she's nailed some good satire on teen media/our media society, and hit the good ole points of identity, fate, and choice that gnaw on all of our toes at night.

And she's got a good sense of humor. Her writing style still doesn't thrill me, for some reason -- the action always seems a little rushed, and the description is too short-hand for my taste (but I'm a sucker for lush - maybe overly lush - prose). The most important thing is, despite myself, from being consciously set against it, I fell in like with this story. Not love, but like.

And for a modern-day, Holden Caulfield-meets-Geek-Fantasy-Crazyfest, that isn't half bad.

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