Like a sidewalk hustler caught palming aces, I was called out yesterday by our guest author, Jonathan Rogers, and challenged to a little round of non-review review. I have to provide my evaluation of The Charlatan’s Boy using only the chapter titles and back-cover copy for reference. I can’t read any part of the book–no Google Books previews, excerpts, other people’s spoilerific reviews, et cetera. This will be as blind as a review gets, short of clairvoyance.
Of course, there are stakes. If I succeed, Jonathan will post the review on his website. If I fail, I get coated with tar and feathers and ridden out of town on a rail. Sounds fair.
*dons blindfold* Here we go. At no time will my hands depart my arms, but the faint-hearted among you may wish to avert your eyes.
From the back-cover copy, I know that the hero of this story is an adolescent boy named Grady, earnest and honest by nature and practical by necessity, the ward of a small-time shyster named Floyd. Grady assists Floyd in numerous con games and frauds demonstrating the adage, “a fool and his money are soon parted,” perpetrated on the citizens of the fictional island of Corenwald. Business has been good, but the marks are slowly getting wise to Floyd, and he needs to engineer a new deception that will restore his cash flow. Grady wants to find his real parents, but he knows he’ll never extract the truth from his fork-tongued guardian. The stage is set, and the adventure can begin.
Chapter 1: In which I jump out of a box and play the Wild Man of the Feechiefen Swamp
An abrupt entrance, but it has the merit of plunging us immediately into the action. Our protagonist is an amateur actor, skilled in the portrayal of legendary creatures thought to haunt the Corenwald wetlands.
Chapter 2: In which we get out of the feechie trade and I begin my formal education
The act is losing its luster, so Grady and Floyd must pursue other means of advancing their fortunes. Nice work here setting up the initial conflict and motivation for Grady’s quest. I’m intrigued. Grady must now prepare for the challenges ahead. While training carries a certain drama of its own, it is all too easy to fall into a morass of tedious exposition, in which nothing much happens. Fortunately, the author avoids this trap.
Chapter 3: In which I take up a new trade and get flabbergasted
Rogers sustains his momentum with a twist of fate that reinforces the story’s urgency. Our hero’s education leads to an astonishing revelation–a paradigm shift. The reality of his world is not at all what he thought it to be.
Chapter 4: In which I find a mama
Pursuing lost family ties is always a dramatic affair, fraught with risk. The orphan may open a door on a new, more prosperous life, or may tumble headlong into alienation and regret. Often the solution of one mystery opens another, more perplexing puzzle. Our hero makes a connection of sorts to his lost parents, but it proves unsatisfying. He must continue his journey, investigating other sources to find the answers he seeks.
Chapter 5: In which Floyd and
me I take up phrenology
Phrenology is a form of soothsaying, divining a person’s qualities, potential, and future by surveying the bumps on his or her skull. This is a small-potatoes con bound to end poorly, but provides an opportunity for Rogers to exercise his wry wit. Most stories benefit from a sprinkling of humor, and this one is no exception.
Chapter 6: In which I ruin a feller’s hairdo and nearbout get smashed for it
Defeat, as we so often find in classic literature, often leads to another, brighter opportunity, an important point of learning for the young adults who are this book’s target audience. The charming use of rural dialect creates a vivid sense of place and time while endearing the protagonist to the reader.
(voice from the crowd) See here, aren’t you simply making vague observations that could apply to any novel of this genre?
Quiet, sir. You’re disturbing my concentration.
(voice from the crowd) This isn’t a review! Any sod pulled from the streets could spout this foggy rubbish! Fraud! Fraud, I say!
I assure you, sir, this isn’t as easy as it looks. By the way, have you stopped beating your wife yet?
(voice from the crowd) Yes! I mean, no…er…that is…
That’s what I thought. Anybody else care to cast the first stone? No? Good.
Chapter 7: In which we leave a hundred villages wanting more and Floyd hits on the biggest scheme yet
I enjoyed this echo of Huck’s encounter with the Dauphin and Duke in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s classic coming-of-age story, set in the rural American South. “The biggest scheme yet” inspired a vague sense of foreboding as I suspected Floyd was leading Grady into “the biggest disaster yet.”
Chapter 8: In which we build a roaring machine
Con games often require the construction of elaborate props to impress the mark in some fashion. It was unclear at first whether “roaring” referred to the machine’s function or overall impressiveness, but by this time, Rogers had me hooked into the story, and I was willing to wait for resolution of this question.
Chapter 9: In which we surprise some cattle drovers
Rogers provides an unexpected confrontation here, which is a great way to catch the reader unawares and introduce additional complications and conflict.
Chapter 10: In which a singing dog causes a fistfight
In perhaps the author’s first notable misstep, the confrontation is defused by a whimsical device that is nearly a deus ex machina. “Singing dog,” indeed. However, a narrow escape leaves open the possibility for this conflict to be resolved in a more lasting and satisfying manner.
Chapter 11: In which we meet the Blossom of Bonifay, the Chalkboard Bully, and the world’s most beautiful eighty-two-year-old
Chapter 12: In which I cause a whole new kind of rumpus at the stock market
Chapter 13: In which I tell the truth and hear it.
A turning point emerges here, near the story’s climax, as Grady gains some new understanding–a powerful moment for a young man nurtured in a culture of lies and deception–but he has not yet broken free of his nurture to discover his true nature. To be frank, I didn’t expect to see this level of emotional and psychological depth in a young adult novel.
(voice from the crowd 2) Hey, mister, you forgot Chapter 11 and Chapter 12!
I most certainly did not.
(voice from the crowd 2) Sure you did. You talked about Chapter 10 and skipped right over 11 and 12 to 13. I count real good. Miz Blivins gave me a gold star for countin’ just yesterday. It’s still glued on my forehead, see?
No, I can’t see. I’m blindfolded. Go away, kid, you bother me. Your mama’s calling you.
(voice from the crowd 2) No she ain’t! I bet you’re tryin’ to pull a fast one, like that fancy-pants feller said!
Look! Over there in the trees! It’s a feechie!
(voice from the crowd 2) Hot diggity! C’mon, Yeller, let’s git ‘im!
All right, folks, eyes up here, moving right along…
Chapter 14: In which we commence terrorizing the populace
Floyd’s master plan is set in motion, and the gnawing sense of impending doom Rogers has so carefully nurtured swells to its full measure.
Chapter 15: In which I get mistaken for a panther
Misadventures and mistaken identity, another classic technique to sprinkle additional humor and provide the reader a bit of comic relief. The roller-coaster ride continues as Grady’s fate hangs in the balance.
Chapter 16: In which I introduce a new invention
The “roaring machine” makes its debut, and our hero is once again saved by his ingenuity, demonstrating his growth as a nascent…
(voice from the crowd 3) Excuse me, but that’s not at all how I remember the story.
Madam, all works of literature are subject to interpretation. Two different readers, or in our case, one reader and one psychic prodigy, may reach vastly different conclusions on the same point.
(voice from the crowd 3) But you have it all wrong about the roaring machine! We discussed this specific point in our reading circle at the Public Library.
But don’t we all have a roaring machine, deep down in our innermost being, that place where we hide all our loneliness, our tears of rejection, all those suitors who reneged on their promises, leaving us broken and bereft of human companionship?
(voice from the crowd 3) Oh, it is so true *sniff*. Life is pain and loneliness, full of heartless men interested only in the sum of one’s dowry. I take it all back. You have seen into my very heart. Pray, continue!
Chapter 17: In which I hear the bark of the bog owl and get mixed up with the Ugliest Boy in the World
The mystical omen is a hoary literary trope, but one the author uses to great effect in this chapter to foreshadow dire events yet to come. Our hero also gains additional insight into the true nature of his world. The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place.
Chapter 18: In which somebody beats us to it and is sorry for it
An enemy’s plot miscarries, creating an opportunity for heroic action.
Chapter 19: In which I lead a cattle raid and ride a bull
Grady literally takes the bull by the horns, and resolves the conflict deferred in Chapter 10, in a scene full of drama and danger. No “singing dog” here, thankfully.
Chapter 20: In which we quit feeding the feechie scare, and the feechie scare starts feeding us
Floyd’s plan seems to have succeeded, but the sense of doom hasn’t yet subsided. Additional subterfuge is required to seal the deal, and unseen enemies lie in wait.
Chapter 21: In which I play the defeated captive
Chapter 22: In which we meet our match
Only two things terrify a con man: The truth, and another con man on the other side of the table. In this scene, a deft juxtaposition of….
(voice from the crowd 2) Hey, mister, there ain’t no feechie in the woods, and you forgot Chapter 21.
(voice from the crowd 4) Woof.
(voice from the crowd 2) Yeller ain’t none too happy about it, neither.
Better luck next time, sonny. Now, scoot. I’m trying to run a show here.
(voice from the crowd 2) We ain’t leavin’ ’til we see a real, live feechie.
(voice from the crowd 4) Woof.
Tell you what–I’ve got one in a cage behind the curtain there. If you’re good, I’ll show it to you after the show. Deal?
(voice from crowd 2) I’m inclined to mosey over there and look for myself. You with me, Yeller?
(voice from the crowd 4) Woof.
*clanking sounds* (voice from the crowd 2) Hey, lemme out of here!
(voice from the crowd 4) Woof.
Pay no attention to the commotion behind the curtain, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your indulgence. Let’s wrap this up.
Chapter 23: In which I ain’t the cause of the ruckus
Floyd’s plan comes crashing down, revealing an even more surprising truth.
Chapter 24: In which I find out some things I didn’t know
Grady’s true heritage is finally revealed in full, and our hero triumphantly claims his true destiny.
In summary, I found this story a winsome, absorbing coming-of-age tale with appealing, memorable characters. The Charlatan’s Boy has something for everyone: adventure, suspense, thrills, tenderness, and laugh-out-loud moments. It’s an affectionate homage to old-timey hucksterism that doesn’t settle for the empty code of “honor among thieves,” but rather embraces the virtues of courage, loyalty, honesty, and love.
*removes blindfold* Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes my demonstration. Copies of The Charlatan’s Boy may be purchased at the table to my right, for retail price plus a small convenience fee. Persons interested in purchasing a copy of my own magnum opus, The Muse, may do so at the much larger table to my left. I also have a small quantity of Plumptree’s Vitaminised Nerve Food, the cure for seasickness and contrary disposition, first come, first served…
*rumbling crowd edges forward, carrying baseball bats, buckets of tar, and feather pillows*
And let me conclude by saying this is a lovely town, and it’s been ever so nice talking with you, but I have an urgent engagement in the next village…
Thanks, Jonathan, for the challenge. This was a lot of fun, and I hope I didn’t disappoint. I’m looking forward to reading The Charlatan’s Boy, in full, very soon.
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