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Reviews Wed Nov 25 2009

Review: The Monster Variations by Daniel Kraus

monster variations.jpgThe Monster Variations
by Daniel Kraus
(Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers, 2009)

In the summer of their twelfth year, three friends and their town are plagued by a monster. The monster comes first for Willie Van Allen in the form of a silver truck that robs him of his left arm in a hit-and-run accident. When schoolmate Greg Johnson is similarly struck down and killed only nine weeks later, the adults in the town impose a curfew that deprives the three boys of the long nights in what is to be their last summer as children. Despite the overbearing curfew, for Willie and his friends, James Wahl and Reggie Fielder, this final summer comes filled with the adventures and thrills typical to twelve-year-old boys, but accompanied by an ominous undercurrent that threatens to rob them of the last threads of childhood to which they so fervently grasp. In a wonderfully told adventure tale, murder mystery and coming of age story, Daniel Kraus's The Monster Variations deftly bridges that dark chasm between childhood and adulthood from which these three boys too soon realize there is no escape.

The lives of James, Reggie and Willie could not be more different from each other. James is the quintessential good kid--the one with doting parents, a grand house and home cooked meals and whose life others envy even as he can feel something tugging at the thread of his perfect family, little knowing how easily it can all unravel. Willie is the meek one--reciting acronyms for school lessons under his breath, the lack of balance and symmetry lent by the stump of his arm seems merely to compliment the timidity and submissiveness of his character, made even more so by his worried mother and his father whose breath reeks of alcohol and who spends more time at home in his bathrobe than out looking for a job. Reggie is the audacious, daring one--the one whose distracted young, single mother lets the boys get away with more than they could at the others' homes, the one who quickly dismisses the curfew and leads the others in an all-night exploration of their school. Indeed, it is Reggie who first intrigues his friends with the initial idea of the monster, an unknown being kept on a schoolmate's farm, and leads them there to see it in person.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of The Monster Variations is the complete absence of maudlin sentimentality therein. The characteristics attributed to these three boys may be easily identifiable, but they are far from stereotypical, and while the story may snugly fit into the coming-of-age category, the loss of innocence these boys experience never feels forced or overly romanticized the way such tales of childhood loss often are. It is not quite clear whether the friends fully understand what is happening in their town, or has happened to Willie himself, but that sort of apprehensive excitement over the mysterious unknown rings true for this group of children on the cusp of adulthood re-learning how to perceive their world. Each family is imparted with its own set of particular problems and secrets and it is to Kraus's credit that, while these secrets do come to a head--some forcefully so--they never explode into grandiose melodrama. It is this air of restraint in the writing that makes what could easily fall into sensationalized emotion a solid, rational exploration of the childhood mind.

In an ending that is both heartbreaking in its reality and haunting in its lack of full closure, The Monster Variations celebrates those last few months of childhood and mourns the loss of it heavily. In true Bradburian style—Ray Bradbury being one of the contemporary masters of this genre—it is Kraus's elegant, understated prose that allows the full weight of the story to impress itself upon the reader. "This could be our last summer," Reggie tells James and Willie as he attempts to convince them to break into their school at night. "If this is our last summer...I don't want to die without knowing what's behind all those doors." Said with the ease of a young mind, it is this desire the drives the three through their last summer as children to the fractured world that waits for them beyond.

* * *

The Monster Variations is Daniel Kraus's first novel. Find out more about his work at his website.

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