Play the tape machine
Make the toast and tea
When I’m mobile
Well, I can lay in bed with only highway ahead
When I’m mobile
Keep me moving
–“Going Mobile” by The Who
Take the zany intelligence of Douglas Adams, the sharp satire of Don Quixote, and the drug-addled trippyness of Hunter S. Thompson and you have the recipe for Libba Bray’s Going Bovine. This isn’t to say that the book is a homage, a riff, or a rip-off of these other artists…just the recipe to which Bray adds her own considerable talent to make a complex yet fun road trip of a young adult “coming-of-age-in-the-face-of-death” novel (if I can coin a genre)…
Cameron Smith is a fairly typical disaffected ‘yoot’ in a small Texas town. His credo (if, indeed, he would be bothered to stick to one) would be to coast through life with as little effort and emotional investment as possible. Being a bit of a loner, he’s earned the embarrassment of his “perfect” twin sister Jenna and has grown away from his emotionally distant mother and his weary, unhappy, father. His only recreations seem to be smoking pot and listening to the albums of The Great Tremolo, the falsetto-voiced Portuguese crooner, that he gets from an old record store downtown. A series of incidents involving uncontrolled muscle spasms and sensory illusions leads Cameron to being sent to therapy for drug addiction and finally to a diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease…aka “mad cow disease”.
Now is when the novel gets weird. Reality and illusion become blurred as, from his hospital bed, Cameron is charged by a punk-rock angel called Dulcie to find “Dr. X”. The good doctor has travelled between parallel dimensions and, as a side-effect, has unleashed dark energies that come in the form of “fire giants”. These creatures, and the Wizard of Reckoning that controls them, will eventually consume the world as we know it. Plus…Dr. X is the only one that can cure Cameron’s incurable disease. He is told to take his roommate Gonzo (a highly-afroed hypochondriac gamer dwarf) and to seek out signs and portents, random coincidences and connections, to guide him on his journey to save the world and, ultimately, save himself. This begins the surreal road-trip that makes up the bulk of this nearly 500 page book.
The journey is a wild one. Cameron and Gonzo travel from Texas to a smoky jazz joint in New Orleans, get drawn into a bizarre happiness cult, rescue a yard gnome that turns out to be a Norse god, make their way to Spring Break festivities at Daytona Beach, and confront their wyrd at the Small World ride at Disneyworld. During the course of the journey, Bray mixes in great dialog, bizarre situations, and some downright scary passages involving the destructive “fire giants”. Further, she takes Cameron down a journey of the soul…but is clearly having fun doing it. As Cameron seeks out his salvation in the midst of larger than life characters and apocalyptic visions, he catches glimpses of his parents back at the hospital and learns to appreciate them more in their smaller, and therefore more real, gestures and reactions. He learns what real friendship is like with Gonzo…especially about how much work real friendship involves.
There are many young adult books that deal with this central theme–learning about life in the face of death–but Bray does something wholly original with it and manages to steer away from the trite easy answers many authors would feel the need to pursue. Bray also impresses with the easy complexity she’s imbued in the text. The zany and comedic plot is grounded in science fiction, philosophy, literary allusion, and existentialism. While these layers give the novel depth, the book moves at a brisk pace, powered by the engine of energetic prose.
When the book ends, one must decide for themselves what was real and what was delusion…and if it even matters which was which. If you want to see the highway up ahead while lying in bed and make the journey of a lifetime, then you need to go bovine.