06 January 2015

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith

I wrote yesterday that Andrew Smith's Ghost Medicine seemed to have some of the same DNA as 100 SIDEWAYS MILES.

Now, having finished IN THE PATH OF FALLING OBJECTS, it's hard not to draw comparisons between Jonah, the narrator of PATH, and Austin from GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE. Though all of Smith's narrators share a deep and honest introspection, Austin stood out (to me, at least) for the way he recorded everything. As I read about Jonah making his map, I was reminded so strongly of Austin's carefully detailed histories, and I was almost surprised when Jonah had to refer to sex obliquely. Jonah was embarrassed by it, a little bit, while Austin was anything but. Two different boys, but both relying on words to tell their stories to themselves.

Jonah was as reliant on others' words as he was on his own. The letters from his older brother, Matthew, who's serving in Vietnam, serve as flavor, point and counterpoint for many of the chapters. I don't have any family who's been in a war (apocryphally, my maternal grandfather was in training when World War II ended), but it was not hard at all to imagine how hard it would be to have a brother on the other side of the world, how heartbreaking it would be to read his words as he loses hope of making it home. The Vietnam conflict was long over before I was even born, but everything I've read and seen about it agrees it was hell, and Matthew's letters bring that harsh reality across in a way I'd never felt before.

IN THE PATH OF FALLING OBJECTS isn't about Matthew, though. It's about Jonah, and his younger brother Simon who he's promised to look after, and the journey they take from New Mexico to Arizona as they try to find their father, who's getting released from jail. Along the way they get a ride from Mitch and Lilly, who are driving from Texas to California with a tin statue of Don Quixote in the back of the car.

Jonah and Simon are too similar, more similar than either will admit, and both dependent on each other in ways deep and unspoken. When they're drawn into the orbits of Mitch - who is probably certifiable - and Lilly - who is the first girl either boy has ever really been around - shit hits the fan real quick.

Much like GHOST MEDICINE, IN THE PATH OF FALLING OBJECTS didn't have as much of that humor that I identify so strongly with Andrew Smith. It was sorrowful and hopeful in equal measures - and that is something I've also come to expect from Smith - but its honesty was darker and more brutal. Jonah didn't have much to laugh about. He didn't know how to laugh. He was still angry.

IN THE PATH OF FALLING OBJECTS was awesome, haunting (no surprise there) and lyrical. It showed a new side of Andrew Smith to me. In GHOST MEDICINE, WINGER, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, and 100 SIDEWAYS MILES, all the main characters were only children. Only children with awesome best friends, granted, but there is something profoundly different about brothers. IN THE PATH OF FALLING OBJECTS showed just how deep Smith's understanding of that bond runs. The acknowledgments reveal Smith has brothers himself. He certainly knows how to channel the love and rage that growing up with other boys brings out in you.

I often wonder where Andrew Smith gets his ideas, but then I think better of it. Sometimes it's better not to know how the magic works.