As a child in Illinois, Oliver is nicknamed Boo because of his ghostly, albino-like pallor. We meet Oliver in a branch of heaven known as Town, where all the inhabitants have died at age 13. They remain physically unchanged for 50 years, before transferring to some other, mysterious afterlife that is the subject of considerable speculation. We learn all this in the first few pages of Neil Smith’s long-awaited debut novel. Yes, it seems treacly, cutesy, and far too gimmicky in the beginning. But as the tale unfolds, it becomes darker, richer, and ghoulish, while the spare, conversational prose never patronizes either its reader or diverse cast of eccentrics.
Set in 1979 – well before cellphones and social media dominated adolescence – the novel immerses the reader in a world of teen bullying, suicide, mental illness, and school shootings. Boo, the science nerd other boys love to humiliate, is the victim of such a shooting. Johnny, a classmate with psychiatric problems, dies in the same incident. The boys become best pals in Town as they seek a hidden portal back to Earth. They also seek Gunboy, the fearsome kid they blame for the shooting. He died on the same day, and may be in Town as well.
The search for Gunboy causes all hell to break loose in heaven, as Smith’s plot transforms from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Lord of the Flies. Allusions abound to those two stories and many other literary classics. The events in the latter half of Boo cannot be disclosed here, but be prepared for surprises. Big surprises. And a desire to reread the entire novel to note the clues missed in the first go.
This is surely a book to be taught to teenagers in English classes, but adults can also enjoy Boo. Indeed, all ages will find the novel disturbing, humourous, and absolutely authentic in its probing of the psychology of a 13-year-old male. Smith, a Montreal-based translator, has hit a home run with Boo, as he did in his only other published book, the 2007 story collection Bang Crunch. Let’s hope Smith’s next work of fiction does not take so long to hit bookshelves.