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Book Review: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

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Last year my children were delighted by a fictionalized journal ostensibly written by a precocious youngster who scrawled strange and funny drawings in the margins of his irreverent musings. This quirky but charming book, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, was a hit with the preteen crowd and has already spawned sequels. A movie is coming soon.

Lately I’ve found myself reading a novel for grown-ups that is strikingly similar: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is the fictional journal of a precocious twelve-year old who fills up the margins of his notebooks with strange and funny drawings. It remains to be seen whether this unconventional debut by novelist Reif Larsen will also be a big seller or make it to the silver screen. But the reported $1 million advance suggests that the publisher, at least, has high hopes for this work.

Twelve-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet calls himself a cartographer — watch out, he gets upset when people refer to him as “map boy” — but in addition to standard maps, he also devises graphs, flow charts, illustrations, comic strip panels, and many other types of marginal marginalia. These show up on almost every page and accompany a coming-of-age story in the venerable American tradition of the youngster who goes on a counterculture trip of self-discovery. Think of our hero as a cross between Jack Kerouac and Doogie Howser with a dose of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan's Travels thrown in for good measure.

Spivet comes from a dysfunctional family in Montana. His father is a taciturn rancher who spends his free time drinking whiskey and watching old Western movies. When he speaks, he he offers laconic one-liners such as: "the crick's drier than a mummy's pocket" or "Christ loves all cowboys." The boy's reserved mother — whom the child refers to as “Dr. Clair” instead of “Mom” — is a failed entomologist who has spent most of her career searching for a beetle that may or may not exist. His brother recently died in a mysterious shooting accident. These characters — as well as many incidental players in the book — are artfully sketched, at times with an almost Dickensian drollness.

Despite young Spivet’s powerful intellect, few in the community offer him encouragement; even teachers at school seem more resentful than nurturing. His middle school science teacher calls him a “smart ass” and is annoyed when the youngster doesn’t stick to the specifics of lessons and assignments. But editors at science journals publish his intricate charts and illustrations. Even the prestigious Smithsonian has come to rely on Spivet’s work for exhibit displays.

Of course, the staff at the Smithsonian doesn’t know that their star illustrator is only twelve years old, but they soon find out. When the Institution gives him the prestigious Baird Prize and invites him to the nation’s capital to give a keynote address, their prepubescent honoree decides to hop on a freight train — emulating a hobo he read about in a book — and travel to Washington D.C. to receive the honor.

Larsen keeps the plot moving, supplemented with accompanying charts on most pages that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Along the way we encounter McDonald’s Happy Meals, Valero the talking Winnebago, the 24/7 “Hobo Hotline,” a talkative racist trucker and other milestones of the American open road. Elements of magical realism also show up occasionally, including a brief train stop outside the normal time-space continuum and an eerily helpful band of traveling sparrows. Finally, Larsen spices up his story with a bit of conspiracy theory — a role played here by the Megatherium Club, a secret organization that seems to pop up in the most surprising places.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a clever, well-paced, and often brilliant book. However, I don’t expect that the literary establishment will open its arms wide to embrace this book. Works of fiction that go beyond your typical word-processed documents and spill out into the margins — examples that come to mind include House of Leaves and The Raw Shark Texts — don’t win the big awards, no matter how visionary or imaginative they are. The typical response to these books reminds me of what a precocious twelve-year-old prodigy might encounter upon arriving at the Smithsonian Institution — hoping to be judged on his work alone but instead running into all sorts of other agendas.

Nonetheless, count me in as a believer. I don’t jump to the conclusion that the next new thing in fiction will take place outside the margins of the text, but Larsen’s eccentricities and linotype-breaking tendencies set this book apart from the crowd. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is an impressive debut, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Larsen’s next novel pushes the envelope even more.

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