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Going Bovine by Libba Bray

When Libba Bray's fourth novel, Going Bovine, won the Michael L. Printz Award in January, most people didn't really know what to think. I'm not sure I saw it on a single mocked up honors list. Of course, the Printz has a reputation that way--of going against expectation and choosing a book nobody expected to win. And the Printz may not have the name recognition of the Pulitzer, the Booker, or the National Book Award, but it's a much coveted medal in the young adult literature community, as important to the children's book business as the Newbery or the Caldecott (both of which went to the favorites this year, in another interesting twist), so when a book is awarded the Printz it means something to a lot of people.

Going Bovine is a weird book, no questions asked. It was from the beginning. Libba Bray, a New York Times bestselling author, became famous for her first three books, referred to as the Gemma Doyle trilogy, about a wealthy teenage girl living in the Victorian era who discovers that she has the power of a second sight and crosses over into other, more spiritual realms like people who live on Long Island day trip into the city. I've only read the first one, but I didn't enjoy it at all and I quickly wrote Bray off as a Writer Of Things I Have No Interest In Reading, since I'm not a paranormal fan to begin with.

Going Bovine, however, is an entirely different animal, if you'll pardon the pun. Even though I knew it was way different from the Gemma books, I wasn't planning to ever read it, because of the aforementioned designation I gave to Bray after A Great and Terrible Beauty. But if you have anything to do with YA, you can't ignore a Printz winner, and here we are.

The protagonist of Going Bovine is Cameron Smith, a smart, friendless slacker/pothead who spends most of his time behaving like a little shit. Then he starts having strange physical attacks and seeing things that aren't there, and when his parents take him to the doctor they discover that he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease, a neurodegenerative disease that causes spongy degeneration in the brain and spinal cord. I was introduced to Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease via an episode of The X-Files in which a town full of weirdos cannibalize outsiders and, eventually, each other. But most people know it by its more popular name--mad cow.

Yes, the kid has mad cow disease, hence the title. In the hospital, he speaks for the first time to a girl who's been following him around for weeks, a pink-haired, fishnet-tights-and-combat-boots wearing angel named Dulcie. Yes, an angel, wings and all. She gives him a Disney World E-ticket bracelet and tells him to find a mysterious Dr. X who will cure his disease. The only catch is that Dr. X found this cure during his travels through space and time, and because of all of this dimension hopping has opened a wormhole that brought dark energy in the form of giants made of fire and the metal-helmeted Wizard of Reckoning, who are going to destroy the world. Just your typical road trip, basically.

Maybe that synopsis turns you on. Frankly, it seemed way to far-fetched to work for me. But actually, what hurt the book more than the ridiculousness of its plot--because ridiculous always gets less ridiculous the more you get used to it--was the tone in which it was written. It's clear from the writing that Bray thinks she's funny and clever, which is a huge pet peeve of mine. Anything that smacks of authorial self-satisfaction makes me want to throw down the book in disgust. But I persisted, and happily the book becomes too busy being funny and clever to tell you how funny and clever it is, like Bray got swept along in the action right along with her characters. As a result, Cameron becomes, in trickles, a person worth caring about, and the reader is taken on a crazy ride that reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth, but with more erections.

So for the most part I thought Going Bovine was great, but it was way too long. It could've had probably seventy-five less pages and I don't think anything would've lost--the detour in Daytona wore very thin on me. But eventually, the book arrives at its final destination with a kind of smart thoughtfulness and quiet joy that I found at once sad and comforting.

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  1. Blogger chris | 12:45 PM |  

    I wanna read this! Sounds fun. Like LOST for pretentious teens.

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