Nathan Penlington loved Choose Your Own Adventure books when he was growing up. A 1980s and early 1990s publishing phenomenon, each section would end on a mini-cliffhanger resolved by the reader (to take shelter in the cave, turn to page 59; to make for the treeline, turn to page 38).
When the author found a lot of 108 of these for sale on eBay, he snatched them up. But inside, so the tagline goes, he "found his own adventure."
Penlington found himself obsessed by the previous (childhood) owner of these books. From notes pencilled in the margins, and a four-page scrap of diary tucked into one of the volumes, Penlington speculated that the boy (Terence Prendergast) had been very unhappy, perhaps even suicidal.
He made it his mission to find out what happened to young Terry -- if he'd gone on to overcome the demons of his childhood.
It sounds like a novel, but The Boy in the Book is more properly a memoir that apes the pretensions of a novel, while mixing in aspects of a confessional and long-form journalism. A few chapters in, Penlington introduces the conceit that, like the Choose Your Own Adventure books he loved, his story will henceforth be continually in the present-tense (though he sticks with the first person rather than the awkward second-person format the books employed).
He therefore treats Terence's fate as a mystery, employing red herrings and false trails, all that Dashiel Hammett stuff. But it reads false, because Penlington knows how it turned out. He goes so far as to foreshadow events that will never even occur, pretending he doesn't know what will happen, although of course he did by the time he sat down to type up the book.
Though he mostly skirts the issue within the book, Penlington is an entertainer; he makes a living on the experimental theatre circuit, putting on shows that are part monologue, part anecdote, and part stand-up, much like the one on which this book is based.
Penlington walks a line between showing something true and real of himself that the audience can connect with, while acknowledging that it's a performance, one that has been scripted, rehearsed, and focus-tested. The emotions that come out onstage must involve a certain degree of method-acting one's own life.
What Penlington leaves out in translating the show to book form is the elephant in the room: to what extent was he "acting out" the experiences of his own life, writing out the script for a later show? He tracks down the boy in the book by page 100 (and it could have easily occurred on page 30 if there weren't so much padding). Then the book inexplicably continues for another 300 pages.
Why? Penlington doesn't admit within the context of his present-tense narrative that he's working on a book until the last third of the story, but no other motivation can make sense of his actions up to this point. He needs to find the boy in the book, he needs to work through the emotional scars of his own childhood, he needs... to fill another 300 pages.
So the reader is treated to scenes of Penlington digging through his childhood toys, interviews with handwriting and diary experts, side-notes on the history of Uri Geller (a phoney psychic the author apparently admires), and clues -- clues! -- as to what might have happened to the boy in the book, whose home address he possessed the entire time.
When it makes narrative sense for an emotional realization, present-tense Penlington duly finds it. And while the writing throughout is not bad, it feels overwritten because every mundane detail is given so much import.
The Boy in the Book is the true story of a false life. Choose a different adventure.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.