Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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.













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’s
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 there star illustrator
is only twelve-years-old. But they will 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.

Author 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.
Great Books Guide
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

by Reif Larsen
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 paid
out to author Reif Larsen for the book suggests
that the publisher, at least, has high hopes for
this work.
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Visit his web site at
www.tedgioia.com

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