NoVA: A NOVEL
James Boice’s novel NoVA is a harsh, beautiful worm’s-eye view of a contemporary America in the process of slow collapse, and possibly the best — the most fully realized, inventive and emotionally plangent — novel to appear in the last five [update 2013: let's call it ten] years. Boice, who is only 26, combines an astonishing capacity for empathetic imagination with the ruthless eye of a documentarian, and he nails his consumer-glutted suburban wasteland and its deadening banality with complete authority.
NoVA — the acronym stands for Northern Virginia — opens with the suicide of a troubled teen named Grayson Donald, who hangs himself from the rim of a playground basketball hoop late one night. Boice sidesteps the potential cliché of this setup by eschewing a straightforward narrative in favor of a widening circle of alternating narrators, where Grayson’s mental deterioration becomes one thread in a kaleidoscopic tapestry of lives utterly drained of meaning by affluence, boredom, pornography, video games, fast food and mall culture. The perspectives of the other characters, including Grayson’s retired military father, his schoolteacher mother, a pair of their smug boomer neighbors and a thuggish teen slacker, are all conveyed through canny use of the free indirect style, that most slippery of narrative techniques….
The author’s Wolfean eye for sociological detail, his unerring understanding of cars, music, clothing, prices, brands — all the endless crud and flash of contemporary American consumerism — is more than just picture-making or contextual authenticity. Writers from Flaubert to John Updike have understood that a fulgent style wedded to sordid subject matter is a basic version of the aesthetic experience; almost nowhere in recent fiction does this experience receive as forceful an expression as in NoVA. This profane, caustic, despairing book transforms its subject matter through the sheer dogged accuracy of its impressions and the beauty of its language. Look around you, it seems to say; you may not like what you see, but it can’t be denied.
—Mike Lindgren, The L Magazine
On its plotline surface, NoVA, the latest novel from James Boice, is the relatively unremarkable stuff of which our blasé postmodern fiction is largely composed these days: 17-year-old Grayson Donald goes to the basketball court of the playground in Centreville, North Virginia (the “NoVA” of the book’s title) and hangs himself from the court hoop.
The event both shocks and eventually reflects the buried sensibilities of the polished, manicured, typically American suburb where it happens – in 2009, we’ve seen this before.
But not like this. NoVA is nothing less than stupendous, a great screaming blast of rage and confusion, a hyper-energetic, hyper-allusive, hyper-articulate, hyper-televised autopsy of the million fault lines that web American culture, especially American youth culture. Large chunks of NoVA are narrated from a young man’s perspective, and there hasn’t been anything even remotely like it since Studs Lonigan. It makes The Catcher in the Rye look like “Leave it to Beaver.”
The book opens with a challengingly prolonged look at Grayson Donald as he hangs there fresh in death, and the clinical tone belies the sickly intensive passion to follow:
The lip and frenulum are atraumatic. The teeth are natural and in good repair. Abundant edema fluid mixed with blood-tinged purge fluid emanates from the nose and mouth. There is a ligature mark around the neck with a suspension point at the back of the neck. There will be a small laceration on the back of the head when he hits his head when he is cut down.
The nihilism of this forensic analysis is neatly mirrored by the stream-of-consciousness that follows, in which Boice takes us inside the mind of half a dozen narrators, including a young psychopath who may or may not be called Sergio:
&Julia says, I gotta go to Sam Goody because I want the new Usher CD and I want to check out the new Alanis Morissette on the listening booth thing b/c I like that song Thank U.
Although its canvas is as wide as any small town in America, NoVA’s dark axis is that basketball court on that one particular morning. The quiet savagery of Grayson Donald’s last act – in some tragic way the only real act of his whole short life – is the magnet that holds this gripping, astonishingly accomplished novel together, like the blithely unifying wind Boice invokes toward the book’s close:
The wind outside the window that blows always. Hear it go. It comes down from sources behind the banners to this township and courses over Springstone Drive and up Battle Rock then through the backyards of South Springs and the gravel crunch lot of Deepwood in the middle of it all like a theme park relic. Hear it kiss the rooftops and shutters and blow through the poplars. It moves the hairs of his head. It cools the raging of him.
—Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly
I’ve been a bit surprised by the lack of mainstream review attention for James Boice’s second novel, NoVA, especially after the numerous kudos and positive reviews of his first book, MVP. He’s a smart insightful writer. He writes with intelligence and with a devilishly dark sense of humor, and was largely hailed as a rising star several years ago. But now, except for a couple of Boston stories: crickets. I wonder why.
Like MVP, NoVA starts largely with the conclusion: 17 year-old Grayson Donald has hung himself from a basketball hoop in a playground in Centreville, VA – Suburbia Central, USA. Boice spends the next 300 pages dissecting the lives of Grayson’s friends, family, teachers, classmates and neighbors in tiny snippets, brief anecdotes, and personal revelations.
Suburbia. What many teens achingly long to escape, and many adults view as the ideal home. The giant green lawns, clean curbs, playgrounds, nuclear families, low crime, good schools, soccer fields, angst-ridden teens, boredom, recreational drugs, adolescent sex, failed marriages all reflect a plastic, manufactured illusion of security. All of its factors come together in NoVA in incisive chapters about its sad, angry residents. ...
What grows on you, however, is the humor, sometimes scathing, but later, often gentle, with which Boice mocks his people. Donald’s mother authors a very funny series of letters to a neighbor complaining about the state of his driveway, each subsequent one more plaintive and desperate. The overserious Best Buy assistant manager is a delectable target of ridicule. The result is a softening of Boice’s indictment of this school, this family, and this town. To me, that was a good thing.
Another strength was Boice’s ability to interlace characters’ lives such that you can see a very private moment from more than one perspective. In this way, Grayson slips in and out of the corners of other character’s narratives, with just a glimpse or a memory. In doing so, he expands the scope Grayson’s private narrative in ways that elaborate key moments in ways the usual first person narrative could not have done. Nicely done.
—Jason Chambers, Three Guys One Book
February’s Best Books. Be forewarned that Boice’s book is not the easy-going kind you tuck in your resort bag and breeze through. A dense, stream of consciousness tale about a 17-year-old who hanged himself from a basketball hoop, Boice artfully probes the reasons why, limning the lives of the boy’s family, friends and neighbors, even as he exposes the dark side of a Northern Virginian suburb. Haunting, brilliant and unlike anything else you’ve ever read.
—Caroline Leavitt, Dame magazine
On November 2, 1998, Grayson Donald ends his life by hanging himself from a basketball hoop in the upper-middle-class community of Little Rocky Run, VA. As in Joyce's Ulysses, the events of the day leading up to Grayson's decision are explored through many of the members of the community who had some connection to him. … Boice (MVP) crafts a well-written portrait of suburban conformity where baked ziti is the meal of choice and social pressures keep people preoccupied in pre-9/11 tedium. The excellent use of language and the insightful plight of the variety of characters make this a good choice for both public and academic libraries.
—Josh Cohen, Library Journal
Boice’s blunt, transparent prose and disjointed vignettes evolve into a meticulous, disarmingly honest scrutiny… Boice deftly illustrates the psyche of the teenager of 1998: totally self-absorbed, yet cripplingly self-conscious…. Succeeds not through [Boice’s] sensationalizing prose, but through his dark sense of humor, caustic perceptions, and compelling candor.
—Lauren Packard, Harvard Crimson
A startling meditation.
There are savagely funny episodes concerning random sex and one surrealistic orgy of serial vomiting.
A grotesquely detailed condemnation of the suburbs — and their dark underbelly.