Review: Little Beasts, by Matthew McGevna

Little Beasts, by Matthew McGevna
2015, Akashic Books
286 pp. 
Set in a little town on Long Island in the early 80s, Matthew McGevna's debut novel Little Beasts tells the story of a group of adolescents whose stories cross paths in the worst way possible. Basing his story loosely on an event that occurred in Suffolk County in 1979, McGevna very effectively dramatizes the effects of small-town dynamics and the Cold War on a burgeoning youth.

In 1979, a boy named John Pius (written into this novel as Dallas Darwin, whose father is a minister) went missing one night when he rode his bike over to the local elementary school. He was discovered in the woods nearby the school the next day, covered in leaves and branches, with six rocks lodged in his throat. He had been chased and beaten then murdered by four older neighborhood boys who, influenced by alcohol and drugs, believed that John had witnessed them stealing a bike and would rat them out. McGevna has tweaked this, but the dramatized crime is no less heartbreaking or gruesome.

The novel focuses mainly on three friends - Dallas (mentioned above), and his friends James Illworth (whose father is the town drunk) and Felix Cassidy (whose older brother eclipses him as a big-shot football player). With summer winding down, and with little else to do, the boys scamper about town, hiding in the weeds while watching the cops carry out an eviction, or going into the woods and stealing another group of kids' fort supplies, etc. Their story is countered by that of David - an older boy, a teenager, who plays into the town's feelings of him as an outsider after he paints a controversial mural, but who still looks for approval from his parents, the girl he loves, and his classmates.

Anyone who was ever a teenager will identify with David. He's the most sympathetic character in the story. And he's our killer. Driven to his act by his parents' disregard, his classmates' constant abuse, and what he perceives as his girlfriend's wandering eye (to wit, with Felix's older brother) the build-up to the attack is, dramatically speaking, justifiable. Of course the fact that he is a persecuted character prior to the act does not lessen David's crime, but when I got to that point in the story I was beside myself and crying - not so much for the victims (in the story, all three boys are attacked by David and two others, but only Dallas meets John Pius' fate), but for David, both as he reaches his boiling point, and as he struggles to bring himself back when it's too late.

The story has shades of Stephen King's "The Body" (on which the film Stand by Me is based), but even more interestingly resembles Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes in which the character of Peter is certainly driven to a much darker place by comparison, but in which we see and understand the unchecked emotional abuse and are meant to understand, empathize and, eventually, forgive. The real-life perpetrators of the crime against John Pius in 1979 were certainly not saints, but given the illustration of David as a kid crying for help in a town that turned its back on him, one cannot help but consider that they were all children once, too.


Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Recently-Acquired Books

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature of The Broke and the Bookish

This week's theme: Last Ten Books that came into my possession

Some of these are from my Christmas haul because I was incapacitated for so long, and had little chance to be gathering more books!

1. The Ecstasy of Influence: nonfictions, by Jonathan Lethem
I'm working through this one right now.

2. Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: 
The Story of the Animals and Plants That 
Time Has Left Behind, by Richard Fortey

3. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic 
Generation Discovered the Beauty and 
Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes
I read this one some years ago, but it's truly one of the most beautiful things I've ever regretted not owning. And now I own it :)

4. Vader's Little Princess, by Jeffrey Brown

5. Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, by Catherine Bailey

I received this as an advance copy a few months ago. It's not exactly up my alley, but my mom read it and enjoyed it enough. It's on my eventual TBR pile.

6. Pet Sematary, by Stephen King
I got this used from a senior community library when we were visiting family near Boca over the winter. It's on the short list!

7. Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands
Also not really up my alley, but I never could resist a barrel of laughs.

8. Intimacy Idiot, by Isaac Oliver

9. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
From the lending library at work.  One of those things that I never got around to reading.

10. Little Beasts: a novel, by Matthew McGevna
An advance copy that I'm going to try to read this weekend. 


Review: Horoscopes for the Dead, poems by Billy Collins

Horoscopes for the Dead,
by Billy Collins
Random House, 2011  |  103pp
I tend to prefer my poetry...loud. Shouting, ringing, echoing - that kind of thing. It's why I love Poe's assonance and onomatopoeia. It's why I love Hamby's proper nouns with their capitalization and weight. Most other poetry pales in comparison. Modern poetry, for the most part, can be too simple for my taste, like the sickly simpering cousin to the greats. And while for me Billy Collins tends to fall into that latter category most of the time, this particular collection is not wholly without merit.

Published in 2011, Horoscopes for the Dead is a personal and deeply relatable collection dedicated to remembering persons and things lost to time. The first poem, "Grave," sets the tone and establishes for the reader a somewhat sardonic humor with recurrent images of cemeteries, empty chairs and mossy shade. Combined with hyperbole, this humor acts as a mechanism to both show love, and deflect pain.

While there is no thru-line, per say, the feeling of loss and longing is evident throughout the book. The titular poem - which opens the second part of the collection - is the most resounding in terms of feeling and relatability. The idea that we mark someone's presence even after they're gone, and that, in loss, we sometimes live in parallels of what-ifs - ghosts of possibilities, as it were - is a confessional token of humanity that its oft written about, but so rarely portrayed as honestly as Collins did here. It reminded me of a Facebook page that I follow - a memorial page for a relation of mine who passed away suddenly a couple of years ago. Gone but ever-immortalized online where we all wait for her next update, regardless of her absence.

That being said, the collection falls short of great in my humble opinion. The deviances into Florida are offensive to me simply because of my feelings about Florida, but are otherwise digestible. But there are some pieces (i.e. "Table Talk," "Lakeside," and "Returning the Pencil to Its Tray") that didn't seem to fit - they're clunky and awkward and resemble poems in as much as they are structured like one, but otherwise have no internal rhythm, neither buoyancy nor gravity, and which simply do not mix well with the others, but which the author deemed appropriate for this collection despite every instinct that I personally would have otherwise. Come for the poems about death and loss, but don't get tricked into staying for the less worthy off-topic meanderings of the modern poet.
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