Canadian author Neil Smith’s first novel, Boo, is testament to his immense imagination. Not many people would think of Heaven as an industrial place that looks like a “vast, public housing project”, known as “Town”, divided up into municipalities reserved for people of a particular country and age. This is where Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple finds himself among other American 13-year-olds after evidently dying of a heart problem. The last thing Oliver remembers is reading the periodic chart taped inside his school locker. The next think he knows he is in a stark “rebirthing“ room in Heaven.
For the next few weeks Oliver explores Town, which is walled in and overcast. He ponders God, which he refers to as “Zig”, because it “sounds hip and groovy”. As on Earth, Zig is a mysterious unseen entity that everyone talks about but nobody ever sees. The difference between the Zig on Earth and the Zig in Heaven, however, is that the Zig in Heaven makes himself known by anonymously delivering things to the 13-year-old townies such as soap, shampoo, jeans, and typewriters.
Not long after Oliver is “re-birthed”, another 13-year-old from his school, Johnny Henzel, arrives in Town with surprising information regarding Oliver’s death and his own. Apparently both Oliver and Johnny were murdered in a school shooting. Johnny is certain that the shooter, nicknamed “Gunboy”, is among the other recent re-births in Town. What exactly happened to Oliver and Johnny that day in 1979 in front of their lockers is the underlying mystery in the novel and also what drives the novel at a frenetic pace toward an unforeseen and poignant ending.
Being called original is not foreign to Smith. His first collection of short stories, Bang Crunch, also examine ordinary people who find themselves in unusual circumstances. For example, the book has a story about a girl whose age expands and contracts like the universe, and another about a woman who finds comfort in speaking to her dead husband’s ashes.
Oliver not only finds himself in an unusual situation, he is unusual (in the most charming sense). Told from Oliver’s perspective, the novel is reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, narrated from the point of view of Christopher Boone, an autistic 15-year-old. While Oliver is never labeled autistic, due to his dislike of being touched, his social phobias, and the ability to pull up scientific and random information seamlessly, it wouldn’t be far off to say that he may be.
In any case, Oliver is honest, direct, and funny. His dialogue is directed at his mother and father. In fact, the whole book is written as a letter to them about what has happened since he died on Earth and found himself in Town. Oliver’s deadpan tone and droll sense of humor are wonderful devices used to separate the tone of the book from its dark material. An example can be found on the book’s initial page:
Do you ever wonder, dear Mother and Father, what kind of toothpaste angels use in heaven? I will tell you. We use baking soda sprinkled on our toothbrushes. It tastes salty, which comes as no surprise because baking soda is a kind of salt known as sodium bicarbonate.
Oliver finds solace in science, particularly the periodic table. (The book’s short chapters are named after the elements.) He also finds comfort in being with others, which is a new concept for him. A socially awkward outcast back in “America” (as life on Earth is referred to), Oliver was bullied and given the nickname “Boo” in regard to his pale complexion. The story takes place in the ’70s, so bullying wasn’t taken very seriously, thus Oliver suffered in silence. However, once in Town, he discovers he has changed. Along with Johnny, he befriends Esther and Theresa – two fully realized and memorable female characters. With his newfound friends, Oliver comes to terms with who he once was and the more social and less anxious individual he is becoming.
Oliver and his friends do things many 13-year-olds do back on Earth. They ride bikes through Town, have parties, and go on adventures. When they set out to find Gunboy, the foursome travels to other zones of Town, visiting infirmaries and looking through rebirthing room records for evidence of Gunboy. Johnny, a bit of a loose cannon, is determined to find Gunboy and “pound his head in with a brick”. Meanwhile, there are rumors of portals that the kids can take to haunt their relatives back on Earth.
Smith instills a sense of discovery, surprise, and authentic teen observation into Boo. This mixture makes the novel a realistic coming of age story, despite its unconventional setting. The book is categorized as YA, but the relationship between Oliver and Johnny is complex and tender in a way that transcends many of the rehashed romantic relationships YA novels make front and center. While the YA genre may put some readers off, any adult who remembers what it was like to be an awkward 13-year-old can appreciate this book. Part murder mystery and part coming-of-age story, Boo is a fresh take on life, death, and friendship.