By Russell Banks
I spotted this mildly dog-eared trade paperback on the giveaway shelf at work. I’ve heard of the author, mostly because of The Sweet Hereafter, but have never heard of Rule of the Bone, which is a bit of a shame, since being about a teenager growing up during the 1990’s, it would’ve been in my wheelhouse. The blurb made the novel sound like it would feature a cool, modern anti-hero, so I thought what the heck, let’s give this a whirl.
Travel is good for you, I kept saying to myself, it broadens you and extends your horizons et cetera but way down deep I was wishing I was back in Plattsburgh in the schoolbus again, just another homeless northcountry mall rat dodging the cops and copping a J now and then and spare-changing my way from day to day until my mom finally saw the light and split from Ken so I could go home and grow up living with her as her son again.
This quote near the end of the book pretty much sums up the entire storyline. Fourteen year old Chapman “Chappie” Dorset gets kicked out of his mom’s house after squandering his collectible coin inheritance to buy weed. The kid’s full of attitude, but unbeknownst to his mom, the reader discovers later that he’s been abused by his stepfather, Ken. From then on, we follow Chappie on his many misadventures, including couch-surfing at his best friend Russ’ place who lives with the leader of the local biker gang called Adirondack Iron. An accidental fire destroys the crummy apartment and kills the biker, so Chappie and Russ run away from Au Sable and take refuge in a boarded up summer house in the Adirondacks.
At some point Chappie adopts the new name Bone, but he and Russ have a falling out, so Bone is left on his own.
The first two thirds of the book was great, especially the part where Bone rescues a little girl named Froggy from the creep Buster Brown and then encounters an old Rastafarian dude named I-Man in an abandoned schoolbus. The three form an unlikely ad hoc family where they make the schoolbus their home and live quite self-sufficiently by dumpster-diving at the nearby supermarket and making healthy Ital meals with the barely spoilt fruits and vegetables they acquire.
Sadly, however, the novel seems to lose focus and momentum after Bone, on a spur of the moment, flies to Jamaica with I-Man and quickly ingratiates himself into the local drug trade. Not only that, somehow Bone also ends up spotting his long lost father in Montego Bay. They get along at first, but eventually his dad turns out to be fairly lame in that he doesn't serve much purpose as a character. He doesn't affect any change in Bone, and the only plot point he serves is to get I-Man killed because he screwed his girlfriend. I’m also left wondering how I-Man, who had such a sweet setup with his cannibus farm and reliable crew of dealers and traffickers, ended up destitute in upstate New York? Of course, Banks does not explore much of I-Man’s history.
Critics have made comparisons of this book to Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn. Sure, Banks sometimes tries a little too hard to make Bone the Holden Caulfield of the 1990’s. But I enjoyed reading this novel for the most part and found the character of Bone quite engaging and insightful. Banks did a good job being consistent with Bone’s voice and there was some really good writing there. It’s not going to go down in the annals of literature as a classic, but it was a pretty decent read.
Basically people don’t know how kids think, I guess they forget. But when you’re a kid it’s like you’re wearing these binoculars strapped to your eyes and you can’t see anything except what’s in the dead center of the lenses because you’re too scared of everything else or else you don’t understand it and people expect you to, so you feel stupid all the time. Mostly a lot of stuff just doesn’t get registered. You’re always fucking up and there’s a lot that you don’t even see that people expect you to see, like the time after my thirteenth birthday when my grandmother asked me if I got the ten dollars and the birthday card she sent me. I said to her I don’t know and she started dissing me to my mom and all. But it was true, I really didn’t know. And I wasn’t even into drugs then.