THE EVERY BOY by Dana Adam Shapiro is a slender and risky book. Its small size and decidedly short length --- just over 200 pages --- are misleading, perhaps purposefully so. One wouldn't think at first glance that the story of one boy's brief life, told after he has died, and the lives that he orbited during his short 15 years on the planet, would prove so full and ample. Yet the life of Henry Every was positively zaftig.
While Henry's propensity for quirky affectations and color-coded diary entries may incite readers to compare him to a certain Salinger protagonist, Henry is decidedly more optimistic. And while he often dons the cap of world-weariness, much of his delicately rendered observations are peppered with a kind of zany enthusiasm and almost child-like joy. Readers will have to decide for themselves which image of teenage boyhood rings truer, and while they may end up choosing Salinger's, Shapiro's is utterly disarming. Fifteen-year-olds with the sensitivity and awareness of Henry may be hard to come by, but we can still hold out hope that they exist.
Similarly, all the characters that flit through the pages of this novel are hopeful creations, so vivid and bizarre and wonderful that we can't help but hope they will leap off the page and into our worlds. Henry has a hard-drinking, gumbo-loving grandmother named Lulu who lives in a kind of perfect, symbiotic dysfunction with and her brash and fiery Cuban maid Papi; his Scandinavian mother cultivates ant-farms and mangles American platitudes, rendering them somehow truer; and the love of his short life, Benna, has only one hand.
These various personas are more than just amalgamations of quirks and oddities. Instead of splaying them on the page, reveling in their bizarre glory and his own cleverness in conceiving them, Shapiro treats each of his creations with a kind of sincere delicacy. Henry and his surreal world is not just a platform for Shapiro to demonstrate his wit and inventiveness; there is no hint of condescension or self-indulgence in his prose.
It is because we fall for Henry --- because we believe, perhaps despite ourselves, in his world --- that our knowledge of his inevitable demise does not sink the novel. And, as the events leading to Henry's death unfold, we simultaneously dip into the parallel story of his parents' tentative steps towards reconciliation, Lulu and Papi's manic love/hate dance, and Henry's own somewhat misguided, gentle and unfailingly hopeful stabs at being in love.
In this little book Shapiro asks readers to enter Henry's world with the wide-eyed hunger for the extraordinary that he as a writer and Henry as a character both display --- to soak up life's beautiful peculiarities. It may take a leap of faith on our part to allow ourselves to fall for this novel's charms, but in the end it is a vital risk to take. Indeed, Shapiro himself has demonstrated the importance, the value and the weight of small risks.
--- Reviewed by Jennifer Krieger
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Review by Sarah Rachel Egelman
Dana Adam Shapiro's first novel, THE EVERY BOY, begins after the protagonist is already dead. Henry Every, a precocious and odd fifteen-year-old, is found dead, drowned after having run away from home four months earlier. His father finds his journal; kept over many years and over 2,600 pages long, answers to the mystery of Henry's death --- and even his life --- remain.
Henry's journal is detailed, poetic and even color-coded (red for "world-changing," blue for "philosophical," clear for "glee"). As Harlan Every wades through what his son has left behind, he mourns, celebrates and puzzles over his only child and also examines his relationship with his estranged wife Hannah, Henry's mother. Harlan and Hannah are every bit as odd as their son; Hannah is obsessed with ant farms and Harlan with training jellyfish. All three are romantic, in the classical sense, but often unable to connect with those around them. When Henry meets the exciting Benna, he feels he finally has made the connection he's been looking for, but it may be that he had invented much of their relationship.
In fact, much of this book seems to be more about perspective than reality. Or maybe it's that the characters are emotionally distant, or perhaps it's that they are all too smart, too strange and too interesting to be real. Whatever it is, Shapiro's book, while enjoyable, doesn't feel authentic. Early on Shapiro explains that Henry's behavior is a mix of "excessive enthusiasm spurred by feelings of displacement" and he stays true to that characterization. He's an enthusiastic kid with lots of big, cool, poetic ideas jostling in his brain, but he's lost and lonely too. Henry's death is tragic, though he makes an interesting ghost. However, the author seems to want to make him a bit more heroic than he comes across. We don't find out until the end how Henry really dies, and Shapiro's ending is not totally predictable.
Harlan and Hannah drift back together and are mirrored by another unconventional couple: Henry's grandmother Lulu and her intense housekeeper Papi. Lulu and Papi feel more real and thus are one of the more interesting of all the relationships in the novel. While Henry himself focuses his creative and emotional energy on Benna, it is Jorden, Henry's best friend, who can offer him the most security, honesty and unconditional love. Jorden, a fairly believable and immensely likable character, is destined to play second fiddle to Benna and, wise beyond her years, realizes this.
It is not clear whether Shapiro is making a statement about adolescence, about suburbia, or about the parameters and diversity of love, or if he just penned a bittersweet novel about one eccentric kid who happens to die before we arrive on the scene. Sad, witty, joyous and nicely written, THE EVERY BOY is good while it lasts, but it doesn't leave the reader with a whole lot after the final page is read and the cover is closed.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman
Reviewed by Jennifer Krieger and Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 21, 2011
The Every Boy