In the summer before Cullen’s senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone’s eating “Lazarus burgers.” But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.
While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.
Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It’s about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.
At the outset let me say that I give this book 3.5 Hawks and recommend it for the quality of the writing. If you enjoy literary fiction for young adults, then this is up your alley. The author, John Corey Whaley, is a gifted writer and I would read his next book solely based on the strength of his writing. But if you weren’t a fan of The Catcher in the Rye
and/or Looking for Alaska, then you may want to pass on this book.
There are several things keeping this book from getting a higher rating and if you read through some reviews on Goodreads, other reviewers point out things I agree with (cheesy naming of characters; annoyance with the protagonist breaking into 3rd person reveries that slow down the plot (a lot); the chapters about the religious fanatics told in 3rd person; and the stupid woodpecker that I frankly just never thought fit with this story no matter how much the author wanted to use the story of that damned bird).
Despite its faults, Where Things Come Back was a quick read and its ending was satisfying. It even got an emotional response out of me at the end.
But my biggest beef with Where Things Come Back is its stylistic and overt reference to The Catcher in the Rye. I’ll put my cards on the table and state emphatically and without any hesitation that I did not enjoy The Catcher in the Rye and wish wholeheartedly that people who want to write books for young adults would stop being taught J.D. Salinger’s single opus magnum so that writers (especially young males trying to write hip books for other young males) would stop emulating Mr. Salinger. It is the 21st century. Can we please find a new paradigm for award-winning young adult novels other than the cynical, trying to be hip, sardonic, swearing-every-other-word, protagonist-so-annoying-that-you- want-to-hand-them-a-gun-so-they’ll-do-themselves-in-already style of The Catcher in the Rye?
It was in fact both the overt reference and stylistic reference to Catcher that had me dogging John Green’s Printz Award winning novel, Looking for Alaska. When I hear a character in a novel written in the 21st century refer to The Catcher in the Rye as their favorite book, it makes my eye twitch. In the 2000’s, with the proliferation of so many amazing books available now to young adults, it seems like a writer with any imagination at all could think of a fresher read for a person aged 14-18 to carry around with them as their favorite.
If I read one more award-winning book that references Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Ryeor emulates the writing style of J.S. Salinger, I will likely throw it – hard – across the room and cause a ripple in the force with my scream of anger.
If you are a writer and you love The Catcher in the Ryeso much you have an orgasm just thinking about it and want nothing more than to emulate the “hip” writing style of J.D. Salinger, then I say go for it. Write that story. Then kindly hide it in some lost-somewhere-hidden file on your hard drive. Forget about it and go write a book in your own style that doesn’t include a Holden Caulfield character.
That is, of course, unless you want to win the Printz award. If you aspire to write books that make the Printz award committee gush and give you the gold sticker, then by all means write a novel that is Salinger-esque. Make sure you find a curse word to repeat over and over again, such as goddamn (Catcher) or ass-hat (Where Things Come Back). Fill your main character with existential angst. And make doubly certain your protagonist is an annoying son-of-a-bitch that a majority of readers will wish would die already rather than speak one more sentence. Then shoot your Salinger-esque manuscript off to an agent. Make sure your promotional materials make you sound Salinger-esque
Thankfully John Green didn’t talk himself into believing that winning that Printz award early on for Looking for Alaska was an endorsement of the Salinger-esque style and stay forever in that mode. Fortunately for us, Green matured as an artist and this year brought us The Fault in Our Stars. TFIOS is a novel all about existential questions. It is full of teen angst. But not once when I read it was I reminded of Catcher. There is no reference to Salinger. TFIOS is the masterpiece it is because it is all Green. Not John Green trying to write like J.D. Salinger (or anyone else). TFIOS is John Green writing like John Green.
So you see it really is unfair of me to dog poor John Corey Whaley for doing the same thing that John Green did back when he was writing his first novel: emulating J.D. Salinger. But I do hope that Mr. Whaley is able to grow beyond it – to stretch and try out his own voice. He is a gifted writer and the fact that I give his book 4 stars even though I hated with a passion how it hearkened back to Catcher is a testament to his skill.
Perhaps the next legion of young writers will find a new icon to emulate. Fifty years from now a book blogger may be bitching about how all the award-winning books sound like John Green.
3.5 Hawks for Where Things Come Back