Read­ers are lead through al­legedly spon­ta­neous ad­ven­ture

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Joel Boyce

NATHAN Pen­ling­ton loved Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture books when he was grow­ing up. A 1980s and early 1990s pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non, each sec­tion would end on a mini-cliffhanger re­solved by the reader (to take shel­ter in the cave, turn to page 59; to make for the tree­line, turn to page 38). When the au­thor found a lot of 108 of these for sale on eBay, he snatched them up. But in­side, so the tagline goes, he “found his own ad­ven­ture.” Pen­ling­ton found him­self ob­sessed by the pre­vi­ous (child­hood) owner of these books. From notes pen­cilled in the mar­gins, and a four-page scrap of diary tucked into one of the vol­umes, Pen­ling­ton spec­u­lated that the boy (Ter­ence Prendergast) had been very un­happy, per­haps even sui­ci­dal. He made it his mis­sion to find out what hap­pened to young Terry — if he’d gone on to over­come the demons of his child­hood. It sounds like a novel, but The Boy in the Book is more prop­erly a mem­oir that apes the pre­ten­sions of a novel, while mix­ing in as­pects of a con­fes­sional and long-form jour­nal­ism. A few chap­ters in, Pen­ling­ton in­tro­duces the con­ceit that, like the Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture books he loved, his story will hence­forth be con­tin­u­ally in the present-tense (though he sticks with the first per­son rather than the awk­ward sec­ond-per­son for­mat the books em­ployed). He there­fore treats Ter­ence’s fate as a mys­tery, em­ploy­ing red her­rings and false trails, all that Dashiel Ham­mett stuff. But it reads false, be­cause Pen­ling­ton knows how it turned out. He goes so far as to fore­shadow events that will never even oc­cur, pre­tend­ing he doesn’t know what will hap­pen, al­though of course he did by the time he sat down to type up the book. Though he mostly skirts the is­sue within the book, Pen­ling­ton is an en­ter­tainer; he makes a liv­ing on the ex­per­i­men­tal theatre cir­cuit, putting on shows that are part mono­logue, part anec­dote, and part standup, much like the one on which this book is based. Pen­ling­ton walks a line be­tween show­ing some­thing true and real of him­self that the au­di­ence can con­nect with, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that it’s a per­for­mance, one that has been scripted, re­hearsed, and fo­custested. The emo­tions that come out on­stage must in­volve a cer­tain de­gree of metho­d­act­ing one’s own life. What Pen­ling­ton leaves out in trans­lat­ing the show to book form is the ele­phant in the room: to what ex­tent was he “act­ing out” the ex­pe­ri­ences of his own life, writ­ing out the script for a later show? He tracks down the boy in the book by page 100 (and it could have eas­ily oc­curred on page 30 if there weren’t so much pad­ding). Then the book in­ex­pli­ca­bly continues for an­other 300 pages. Why? Pen­ling­ton doesn’t ad­mit within the con­text of his present-tense nar­ra­tive that he’s work­ing on a book un­til the last third of the story, but no other mo­ti­va­tion can make sense of his ac­tions up to this point. He needs to find the boy in the book, he needs to work through the emo­tional scars of his own child­hood, he needs... to fill an­other 300 pages. So the reader is treated to scenes of Pen­ling­ton dig­ging through his child­hood toys, in­ter­views with hand­writ­ing and diary ex­perts, side-notes on the his­tory of Uri Geller (a phoney psy­chic the au­thor ap­par­ently ad­mires), and clues — clues! — as to what might have hap­pened to the boy in the book, whose home ad­dress he pos­sessed the en­tire time. When it makes nar­ra­tive sense for an emo­tional re­al­iza­tion, present-tense Pen­ling­ton duly finds it. And while the writ­ing through­out is not bad, it feels over­writ­ten be­cause ev­ery mun­dane de­tail is given so much im­port. The Boy in the Book is the true story of a false life. Choose a dif­fer­ent ad­ven­ture.

Joel Boyce is a Win­nipeg writer and teacher.

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