I'm a kid at heart. Any book with the word 'superhero' in the title, the tag line, the blurb or in a review of the aforementioned book will have my spider-sense tingling. It is a definite in. So when I was thumbing through Alma Books' Spring 2010 catalogue and noticed at the back a photo of a book cover, well, the book cover you'll have noticed before you started to read this review, I was hooked. It didn't really matter what the book was about I was interested.
Here's how the blurb from the back of the book begins:
Donald Delpe is a troubled teenager. Not only is he a ‘terrible teen’ by default, as obsessed with sex, music, videogames and drugs as the rest of his gang…
I was a bit worried when I read that opening bit that Donald was going to be a really unlikeable character. I didn't need him to be loveable but I didn't want him to be nasty. Much to my delight I took to him right away but I'll come back to that. Let's continue with the blurb:
…but he is also suffering from a life-threatening form of leukaemia, which makes him an even more difficult boy, both for his parents and his teachers.
Okay. Now that could go a few ways but I saw this building up to be a real tear-jerker, a sort of adolescent Tuesdays with Morrie. I wasn't sure I was up to that. Now, having finished it I can't pretend that it wasn't sad, it was dead sad, but it was also dead funny. Death may be a serious business but how many teenagers take anything that seriously, even be it their own impending death? On with the blurb:
Escaping into his own comic-book realm of immortal superheroes, ruthless villains and sex-crazed vamps, he repeatedly dashes his family’s hopes by refusing to fight the battles facing him in the real world.
The book is written in an unusual way, part narrative, part script, part comic-book outline. I'm a writer; if I was heading full throttle towards death I'd write about it, so what would I do if I was an aspiring comic book artist? It makes total sense to me. The blurb concludes:
As famous psychologist Dr King is brought in to help, a glimmer of hope is rekindled. But will the doctor break the rules, betray the parents’ trust and risk everything to help Donald achieve his greatest wish? Or will Donald be the one to save the doctor?
Hmmm. This has been done before surely, young, handsome doctor formulates radical treatment plan, one that his elders insist has no chance of success and will probably do more harm than good. Yeah, I can see where you might come up with that idea but that's not really how things play out. As for saving the doctor, now that does sound clichéd. Are we seriously expecting him walking into the sunset at the end of the book a changed man after his encounter with this extraordinary human being? Not quite. Okay, maybe a bit but when you put it like this is all sounds like the plot to My Sister's Keeper or Lorenzo's Oil or something.
I compare the book to films because it's being made into a film, due for release in 2010, and I think it might do quite well if the film manages to steer that fine line between sentimentality and dark humour. It can be done and I would refer you to Peter Chelsom's 1999 film, The Mighty, about a wise-cracking terminally-ill kid who, along with the neighbourhood's dim-witted, over-sized outcast, together create their own superhero. See, I know about all things superheroic – well, a lot of things superheroic.
When I used to collect comics back in the sixties there was one thing that annoyed me about them, they'd present a starting cover showing something that never actually happens in the comic. That bugged me. The one that jumps to mind is Supergirl smashing the miniature city of Kandor and Superman crying our something along the lines of: "My God! You've just killed seven million people!" Never happens. I find blurbs a bit like that, never completely honest. They're hard to write I'll give them that but they should be viewed with caution if not exactly taken with a pinch of salt. So, I'm not saying the blurb is that bad but caveat lector (that's my best guess at reader beware) is all I have to say.
I don’t think the blurb does the book justice that's what I'm getting at but enough about that, let's have a look inside.
The book begins:
Fade in ... DONALD DELPE. Fourteen years old. A skinny kid, shoulders as meatless as coat-hangers. Odd-looking. No eyebrows, no hair. Face like a peeled potato. Walks paddle-footed down the streets of Watford…
When I got sent this book for review – actually I begged a copy – I was delighted that it was by a New Zealander (I couldn't remember reading anything by a New Zealand writer before) and so I was royally cheesed off to find the book was set in Watford. Now I'm even more annoyed to find that the edition that was published in New Zealand was set in New Zealand. Why the change for the UK? Are the streets of Wellington too exotic for our tastes?
The book is written in three acts followed by out-takes and deleted scenes. Once you've got to the end of Act Three the story has effectively come to an end. Its not-overly-complicated plot is tied up and that seems to be that. I frankly felt a little disappointed by the ending. And then I read the so-called out-takes and suddenly this became quite a different book. It's hard to know when a story is finished. It's hard not to say too much. In the novel Donald goes missing for a few hours. This unfortunately gets his doctor into a lot of bother but we never learn what happens during those hours, they're quite expertly glossed over. And then, once we think the story is over, we discover what happened. The deleted scenes also allow the storyline to run on a little and serves as a dénouement. It's very cleverly done.
Okay, in the film The Bucket List two terminally-ill old codgers make a list of things they want to do before they kick the bucket – see the Pyramids, drive a Shelby Mustang, kiss the most beautiful girl in the world, that sort of thing – but what would top a fourteen-year-old boy's bucket list? Getting his neno ("Nookie Experience Number One"), joining the Six-Inch-Deep Club, landing the Martian Probe on Venus. The blurb says he's "obsessed with sex". He's not obsessed with sex, he's fourteen.
His big problem? Sex is on his mind, as usual. Been this way for a couple of years now. Acid-tripping on testosterone, lonesome as hell, his every second thought X-rated. Were these mind movies ever to go out on general release, the film censors would have to cut them to ribbons for family audiences, bleeping and blanking and pixelating all the reality out them, until they became the 12A-rated sleeper which is all the world ever sees of Donald F. Delpe.
It's high summer, 2006: the summer when nearly everyone feels they have tentative links with Hollywood, the land of fantasies so far away across the rolling sea; the summer when nearly everybody fancies themselves in show business and has begun to think in frames per second, dream in Panavision, see the world in montage, as scenes either brilliantly or poorly directed, as a series of smash-cuts and slow-fades to black, of lives as hits or flops, of relationships as comedies with cliché endings, of the Past as prequel and the Future as a franchise whose film rights are unencumbered – making all life, all of it, behave in the glorious nowness of the present tense common to film scripts, so that even the rubbish man is insomniac waiting for a call from his agent, and all the local barbers and bars display photos of staff with their arms wrapped around a star. It is the first summer in memory where an ordinary, hard-working, God-fearing life looks like an awfully dim choice compared with the brilliant projections of white light through celluloid.
This is how Donald sees life. When his parents drag him to church – not that they're especially religious, they're just desperate – he spies a good-looking brunette on the far side of the nave. Actually 'good-looking' is my expression. This is what Donald 'thought-bubbles' (his euphemism for thinking):
An Eve with centre-parted hair, a radiant babe, a babeatron, a looker to send his heart tom-tomming.
From simply adoring her from afar his internal movie disintegrates in his usual "grope-fest" of a film:
The film is obviously a turkey, shot for his own amusement and repetitive in its obsessions, but he will not touch a frame of it. … But then he gets an itch. An unscripted itch. Under his beanie. A monster scalp tickle that will be cured only by removing the woollen disguise, by real fingers digging into actual skin. Oh God, oh God he prays. Where art thou?
He pulls off his beanie.
And what a moment for her to look over at him, this girl who should've / could've / would've worn his ring. Their eyes meet, lock. Donald's fingers freeze mid-scratch.
Being fourteen is awful at the best of times but being fourteen and suffering from cancer must suck big time. Which it does. And we get to see a lot more moments like that where McCarten's plot conspires against poor Donald.
This is where I didn't like the word 'gang' in the blurb because Donald tends to keep to himself. Even when his father brings two of his friends, Mike and Raff, round to see him when he sees them he rushes back into the house and his dad has to take the two boys back.
The blurb mentioned a 'famous psychologist'. That would be Adrian King – "early, fifties, revered, published, brilliant" neither handsome nor it seems "a sexy man" carrying a bit too much weight although he has "a redeeming elegance that makes him uplifting company among people who wish to contemplate higher-order things" – and we get to learn quite a bit about him and what's going on in his life both with and apart from Donald. He's not dying of cancer but his life is in almost as much of a mess as his patient's. His wife and he live apart during the working week, she on a farm where she can fuss around her horses, him in a flat in the city with "Roof", Rufus, the cat his wife bought "before her interest in pets spread, became equine". Their relationship is one of "reciprocal tolerance". That's the doctor and the cat I'm talking about there. As far as his relationship with his wife goes he's the one who seems to be doing all of the tolerating. Their sex life is almost non-existent so he had that in common with Donald if nothing else. He suspects his wife is giving the local vet one but can't muster up the energy to do anything about it.
They are a mismatched couple let's put it that way. I'm talking about Adrian and Donald now. Here's a fairly typical interchange between doctor and patient:
Int. Oncology Ward / Hospital. Day
It's one of those days for Donald when you feel like a piece of taxidermy, when the last thought you had has been frozen on your face since the moment you got shot. A jammed idea and a trophy expression now yours for evermore.
ADRIAN: Do you want to talk about anything?
DONALD: I'm not going to make it.
ARDIAN: We don't know that.
DONALD: I'm not going to make it.
ADRIAN: (after staring at him, waiting for more, to no avail): What do you mean?
DONALD: I'm crapping out before I've even partied. (Shakes his head at the raw injustice of it.) And you know what the worst thing is? The worst thing? I'm gonna die a friggin' virgin. Pretty pathetic.
ADRIAN: You need to try and get sex in perspective.
DONALD: Hey, fuck you. I'm fourteen. Sex is my perspective.
ADRIAN: Okay. I know. I remember what it was like. Kids like you… you get a hard-on when you see a crack in the pavement.
Donald looks at Adrian with something like respect.
DONALD: I like that. Who said that? Oscar Wilde?
ADRIAN: Toilet wall.
Are you starting to see why I took to Donald right from the jump? Yes, he has an attitude but he also has a biting sense of humour.
That quote was from the opening page of Act Two. I could've picked an earlier interchange but most of the early ones are a bit one-sided. By Act Two Adrian has at least managed to break through the teenager's wall of silence.
A three-act structure is a type of dramatic arrangement. It includes three broad actions:
- Setup (of the location and characters)
- Confrontation (with an obstacle)
- Resolution (culminating in a climax and a dénouement).
And that's how the novel works only the dénouement is, as I've already said, a part of the 'Out-takes and Deleted Scenes' section of the book. It's also fair to say that the supporting players in the book, the mother, the father, the brother, the two best friends and the love interest could have been plucked from any plucky, well-meaning made-for-TV movie. They play their parts perfectly but this is Donald's book.
Oh, there was a bit of the blurb I missed out. The next paragraph begins:
Inspired by true events…
Why do I need to know this? I don't. So which bits were real? Does it really matter? Can you imagine how many books you could say that about? Actually I've found an interview with the author where he does say precisely where the inspiration comes from but I'm not going to tell you because it's the scene around which the whole book revolves but I can see where the attraction was. He was certainly inspired:
This was not a typical book to write for me. Either I took in too much coffee or it was something in the air in Corfu where I wrote the bulk of this short book, but it all came to me in a mad exhilarating dash. At one point I was writing 20 pages a day and in four weeks I had finished the first draft. – interview with Mark Thwaite for The Book Depository
One of my all-time favourite books is Billy Liar about a boy in a dead-end job in a dead-end town who copes by fantasising. Donald Delpe's frustrated young life is heading towards its own dead end and this is way of facing up to what looks like being the inevitable. But is it? A short scene from the comic where Donald's hero comes up against his nemesis, a mad doctor, The Glove:
MEANWHILE… further down the street. THE GLOVE lowers his BINOCULARS and picks up a RIFLE. He and his NURSE have taken up a perfect position behind a LOW WALL.
THE GLOVE: Here he comes. Excellent.
NURSE: But darling, you said I could do it. You know how hard I've been practising. Pleaaseee let me kill him…
She's tough to resist, especially when she has her hand on his CROTCH. THE GLOVE gives up the RIFLE.
THE GLOVE: Okay. But don't fire until I say. (Raises binoculars and once more sees MIRACLEMAN and RACHEL roaring closer, closer, closer.) Wait till he comes within range… wait… we'll only get one chance… wait…
NURSE: (taking aim) Can I ask you one question?
THE GLOVE: Shoot.
She FIRES! BANGGGG!!!
THE GLOVE: What are you?!!!!... I didn't mean – YOU IDIOT!!! – I just meant…
THE NURSE: What? You said SHOOT. You said shoot.
THE GLOVE slaps his head as MIRACLEMAN roars safely by on his MOTORBIKE.
THE GLOVE: Women! Aaarghh!
So, he's only fourteen, what did you expect, great literature? Of course the blurb says that the superheroes are immortal. Well, there's actually only the one superhero, Donald's alter ego, MiracleMan and that's the big question here: Is he somehow going to die and if he did what would be the consequences? Of course in the world of comics superheroes die all the time, it's a cynical marketing ploy and we all know that now, but do you think that Donald would buy into that? You'll have to read through his comic to find out. And that really is the key to understanding Donald if you can overlook all the gratuitous sex; Donald's is a comic that would not get a Comics Code Authority stamp of approval.
Before I forget you might have noticed a certain Rachel clinging to MiracleMan on his bike. That would be a proxy for…
SHELLY DRISCOLL, fifteen years old, brunette, from an unhampered upper-income family, two credit cards already in her wallet, going places. She plays the piano, can pound out the Minute Waltz in fifty-five seconds flat, toys with the idea of being a concert pianist but is unlikely to marshal the discipline.
Yep, she was the brunette from church and so out of his league. So what are we setting up here, a kind of Love Story where it's the Ryan O'Neill character that gets sick and dies? Not quite because he pretty much makes a total muck of their first 'date' and that looks like that. He's going to die a virgin. Or is he? Going to die? Or going to lose his virginity? Or going to lose his virginity and then die because it would be awfully hard to do it the other way round?
I'm not saying. What I am saying is thank God for all those deleted scenes and out-takes.
This was a good book. I think it will make a better film. Comics are all about images before anything else and this novel doesn't have any. A few black and white ones might have helped. – I've seen that done before – but what it really needs is for the characters to come to life. And that's what the new film will hopefully bring; MiracleMan will be animated by Munich-based Teixter Fil while the rest of the film will be shot using live actors in New Zealand and not Watford – thank God. Variety reports that Freddie Highmore and Jessica Schwarz will star; McCarten will sit in the director's chair himself and not for the first time:
It was that with great foolishness and no small trepidation therefore that I recently put my name forward not only to adapt but also to direct for the cinema a new novel of mine, ten years after my first fledgling effort to complete the same tricky trifecta.
I was emboldened by a single presumption: that these three different disciplines are actually only variants of each other. By this I mean that the writer of novels directs the action in a scene just as meticulously, and just as visually, as a director, while the film director, by the injection of his or her ideas, is also rewriting the scene and is thereby partly a novelist. If it’s all the same game, then, the challenge is not one of mastering different art forms, but merely becoming competent with very different tools. – The film of the script of the book
McCarten's novel won the Austrian Youth Literature Prize and was a finalist for the 2008 German Youth Literature Prize. I find that interesting. I see nothing to suggest that this book was aimed at a youth market – indeed some parents would object to their kids reading it I'm sure – but those were the books we were swapping in the playground when I was young, the ones we weren't supposed to read. In 1960 another book about a disgruntled teenager found itself actually banned and it has been a subject of debate ever since. That book is, of course, Catcher in the Rye, and although I find it hard to imagine that book being passed around in a schoolyard I have no doubt that it was. I'd like to see teenagers getting their hands on this and recommending it to each other. I don't see it happening – X-rated . . . sorry, 18-rated . . . films have taken the place of books in that respect. It would be something if the film of this book got passed around the playground. That would be an achievement.
If life is a film, what do you think Donald thought of it? Let me leave you with his suggestion for his epitaph:
I want my money back. I didn’t understand a thing.
Anthony McCarten is a playwright, filmmaker, poet, and fiction writer. McCarten, with Stephen Sinclair, wrote Ladies’ Night (1987), a play about male strippers that became an unprecedented commercial success. It has been translated into six languages and was the most successful touring production in Britain between 1990 and 1994. He has also directed films, published a short story collection, and a number of poems. Death of a Superhero is his third novel to make it to the big screen, The English Harem being the first and, his fourth novel, Show of Hands being the second. Not sure what happened to Spinners.