[4 March 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
What do you get when you combine the futuristic teachings of R. Buckminster Fuller with the proto-punk/metal music of the Misfits? Author Peter Bognanni seemingly has the answer, and offers it up in his debut novel for young adults, The House of Tomorrow.
The book is a coming-of-age tale about 16-year-old orphan Sebastian Prendergast, who lives with his grandmother in a geodesic dome on the fringes of a small town in Iowa. Sebastian’s existence is a very isolated one as he is homeschooled in Fuller’s philosophies by his Nana. He has never made contact with other people except when tourists come to visit the dome, and whenever he makes the infrequent trip into town on his bicycle to pick up supplies. He has almost never consumed a soft drink, and grilled cheese sandwiches are a mystery to him.
Things change, however, when the town-dwelling Whitcomb family comes to visit Sebastian’s home when his grandmother suddenly collapses from a stroke. Sebastian winds up befriending Jared Whitcomb—a leather-jacket wearing teenager with a penchant for the Misfits, and a chronic cigarette smoker despite the fact that he has received a heart transplant only two years before. Before long, Sebastian finds himself leading a double life: torn between living up to the leadership plans Nana has set him up for as he matures to an adult, and the ragtag punk band called the Rash that he and Jared form with the intensions of electrifying a church-based talent show.
If the geodesic dome is the House of Tomorrow of the book’s title, then the Whitcomb family home is certainly the House of Yesterday. Jared only listens to classic punk music predating about 1985 or so, and his mother Janet is a devout conservative Methodist grappling with a marriage separation. His older sister Meredith is the epitome of the Catholic school girl: inviting strange boys into her room, but never progressing with them beyond some heavy petting sessions. This dichotomy between the two homes forms the pillars of the novel that Sebastian must navigate as he suddenly finds himself thrust from the sacred world of the dome into the somewhat secular and pop culture-riddled world of the Whitcomb household.
This ping-pong act would be a tremendous undertaking for any novice writer, but Bognanni has earned his chops based on his résumé. He is a 2008 Pushcart Prize nominee, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his short story “The Body Eternal” was chosen by Stephen King as one of the “100 Most Distinguished Stories of 2006” in The Best American Short Stories (2007). His talents clearly extend to longer form storytelling, as The House of Tomorrow is a novel both richly rewarding and compellingly propulsive.
The main reward of the novel comes in the friendship between the two main characters. Sebastian is both suitably erudite beyond his years—he has an advanced vocabulary full of $50 words—as well as startlingly naïve; he knows very little about interacting with his peers, and knows next to nothing about girls. Jared, on the other hand, is both a gruff and brusque teenager, but one with a sensitive heart who is constantly afraid that he is about to lose his new best friend. That the two could get along and create a two-man punk band of guitar and bass is a testament to the charm of this book.
The House of Tomorrow shares some similarities to D.C. Pierson’s recently published The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, in that both books were written by young authors, both are aimed at young adults, and both feature two best friends trying to make sense of a world where they are treated as outsiders. But where The Boy Who lapses into the world of science fiction and is unintentionally offensive, The House of Tomorrow is a more mature and touching book, and is certainly the better of the two. It makes some acute observations about the nature of punk music (“Punk bassists don’t really need to learn chords. Those are for bands that try too hard,” says Jared at one point), and is, on the whole, a more joyous and life-affirming novel.
Granted, there are minor problems with The House of Tomorrow. For one, it’s hard to buy the fact that Jared and Sebastian only explore punk music from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, bypassing emo and other divergent strains of punk that have emerged in recent years. It might have been better if Bognanni had simply set his story back 30 years ago, rather than the present day for that reason. The burgeoning love Sebastian feels for Meredith often feels contrived, considering that she takes on a big sister role for much of the latter half of the novel, making this aspect creepily incestuous. Plus, the novel dips into cloying sentimentality in its closing 50 pages, and the big climax is a little hokey.
Still, the novel is a pleasant and engaging read, and, while it won’t set cities aflame with rock ‘n’ roll, it’s the kind of book that adults can enjoy as much as the older teenaged audience it shoots for. (There is some foul language in the book, mostly on Jared’s part, and there’s a sensual scene in which one of the main characters gets his hands on the breast of a half-naked lady.) The House of Tomorrow is a rollicking book that explores the passion and joy thrashing on a bunch of musical instruments brings, even poorly, and does so with a lot of heart, intelligence and literary precision.