Sunday, March 30, 2008

I Want to Go Home

I think my like of Gordon Korman as a kid had as much to do with his own story as it did with his slew of hilarious, borderline farcical books. Korman authored his first book at age twelve, as part of a seventh grade English class. A year and a half later, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall was published by Scholastic's Canadian imprint. By the time he graduated high school, Korman had published five books. As a student at NYU, he authored several more. He was a huge phenomenon, particularly in Canada. Though he's somewhat less known in the United States, I've met many fans over the years. Everyone remembers just how much Gordon Korman made them laugh. Kids absolutely eat up his humor and characterization.

My obsession with Korman occurred well before the internet existed. In middle school, taken with the idea that I, too, might somehow be able to publish a book, I tried to learn everything I could about him. I still have some of the photocopied interviews I found during my search. Much to my surprise, his books were not particularly well-received by critics:

"This zany, but rather pointless, romp pits Simon Irving against his father, vice-president of Interflux corporation, to save a piece of open land next to his high school. While masquerading as contemporary high-school angst, this novel is pure fantasy bordering on the ridiculous at points. Although there are some funny moments at school and passable character development of Simon and his two best friends, girls and women are reduced to cardboard stupidity or, worse yet, clinging boyfriend fiends. Simon's mother is a culinary fool who follows every whimsical new "health" diet that the newspaper prints. She is the continual target of the longest standing joke in the book. The ending, true to form, depends on the absurd antics of another adult, this time Simon's father's boss, to resolve the dilemma of students fighting the insensitive corporation. Thus, the story ends even more pointlessly than it began. It's easy to pass this one by."--The School Library Journal on Son of Interflux

"Tenth-grader Paul enrolls in lower Manhattan's Don Carey High (a.k.a. Don't Care High) when his family moves from a small town in Canada. Machiavellian classmate Sheldon plots with Paul to stir things up among the apathetic students and staff in a school where "everyone's ambition is Christmas vacation." The boys nominate friendless oddball Mike Otis as Student Council President without his consent and fashion in his name a powerful, charismatic leader who makes Don't Care High care very much. In this would-be satire, there are some clever bits: the feudal "Locker Baron" who extorts junk-food payments for combinations in prime locations, the student who is a slave to a terrible addiction: licorice. Having missed its mark, the book becomes merely outrageous and offensive. In the characterizations, stereotypes and stick figures abound. The hero instigators are flat personalities for all their rushing about. What makes the pathetic Mike Otis tick is never explained. All of the adults, parents, teachers, etc. are well-intentioned incompetents or utter fools. Most seriously, in the interest of motivating, the story applauds stealing of confidential records, vandalism and physical violence."--The School Library Journal on Don't Care High

I remember reading an interview in which Korman addressed this sort of criticism of his work. He explained the inspiration for his books was to go beyond the merely plausible--if, for example, a kid could be a really great drummer, why couldn't he be the best drummer in the world? Why couldn't a kid become a millionaire? Korman explained that only adults objected to implausibilities. Kids not only accepted such premises readily, they found characters like Bugs Potter and Artie Gellar (the aforementioned drummer and young millionaire) empowering, and most of all, hilarious.

As an adult, I'll readily admit that it's hard to overlook some of Gordon Korman's flaws as a writer. The pages are littered with adverbs. Rarely do the characters ever just "say" anything, they always say things "mildly," "angrily," "warningly," "sardonically," etc. I actually found this impressive as a kid because we were always told to avoid using said, which is dubious advice, but young Korman certainly took the lesson to heart. His characterization and plot structure are frequently repetitive. The plots range from borderline believable to completely outrageous and impossible. Pointless? Perhaps. But I kind of think that is the point. These books are just fun. There's no, like, underlying moral current or something. They were the product of a youthful, creative energy, and they're highly readable and enjoyable.

Of the books he wrote from the age of twelve to his early twenties, my favorite was I Want to Go Home, with No Coins, Please coming in a close second. I Want to Go Home features a typical Korman hero and sidekick team. Reluctant Rudy Miller, the sort of kid deemed "difficult" by adults, is sent to summer camp on the advice of his guidance counselors. He befriends his cabin mate, Mike Webster, and the two plot to make an escape from Camp Algonkian Island.

The book is at its best when Rudy beats one of the counselors at a game of chess and becomes camp director for a day. He gives the campers the day off, and forces the counselors to endure a grueling regimen of complicated obstacle courses and relay races, followed by a scavenger hunt for items such as an "iceberg" and "a genuine brontosaurus rib." I loved this chapter as a kid, and I loved it as an adult. I also love Rudy's parodies of the camp director, Mr. Warden. Mr. Warden always makes speeches that begin, "This is Camp Algonkian Island. It was founded by my grandfather, Elias Warden. Never once, before today..." Rudy speaks often of "not wanting to upset old Elias."

He and Mike make several attempts to escape camp--stealing a boat, running off in the middle of a dance held at another camp, and even attempting to build a dam that will cause a flood. When they arrive at the dining hall covered in dirt, Rudy explains that they were in arts and crafts, building a "saleté." The following day, their irate counselor demands to see the saleté. Rudy and Mike craft a hinged wooden box and fill it with soil, as Rudy explains to Mike, "He asked for a saleté and that's what we're giving him. It's French. It means dirt."

Gordon Korman continues to write, still to mixed reviews. He abandoned his career as an author for young adults for awhile and wrote for younger children, then returned to the young adult circuit. Unfortunately, most of the books he wrote as a young Canadian author are now out of print in America, I Want to Go Home included. To my knowledge, at least one of his books (Bugs Potter, Live at Nickaninny) was never published in America--I was elated to find it at a used bookstore several years ago, and it's still the only copy I've ever found. I think anyone that enjoyed his books as a kid would enjoy revisiting them. One in particular, The War With Mr. Wizzle, is now incredibly dated, and this only makes it more amusing. I can't imagine that kids today wouldn't read Korman just as eagerly as I did, and he seems like a good choice for reluctant readers.

By the time I was fourteen or so, I realized that, unlike Gordon Korman, I was not about to become a published author. I attempted fiction and found that I failed at it, miserably. Still, he's quite an inspiration. His early books may have been completely implausible, but hey--isn't it rather gloriously implausible that a seventh grade English project would turn into a published novel in the first place?

1 comment:

Josh said...

Glad to see another post :).

I didn't realize Korman had done the kinds of books you mentioned here. I know him best for his more serious works, and most others probably do as well (of those that do know him as an author). Good to see another side of him.