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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Donna’s Men

Book II: Never So Good

by Don Webb

Donna’s Men

Michael E. Lloyd — known affectionately to the Review Board as Mike — deserves a lot of credit for setting himself a very difficult task: writing the memoir of a young boy, Peter. The book “Never So Good” shows the child marking milestones in his life with his family and at school as well as with world events, radio, television and — above all — the popular music of his time.

Peter has to be made believable and at the same time intelligible to adult readers. The result is necessarily youth remembered by an adult: the boy expresses himself with the guidance of the ghost of his sister Jane and, behind the two of them, the presence of the author.

Peter’s language is largely authentic; he normally uses words one would expect of a child his age. His thoughts and feelings ring true, but their coherence sometimes exceeds a child’s capacity. And on occasion, Peter’s thoughts require a shortcut. For example, Jane teaches Peter the word “frustrated,” a word we would hardly expect a child of his age to understand, let alone use. But it comes in handy, and even if it occurs to readers to raise such questions, they will gladly make allowances, because the author rigorously respects and adheres to the child’s point of view.

Peter is frighteningly precocious and talented; but that’s often cold comfort, because he also seems to be very lonely. A student of literature could write an essay of respectable length on the theme of death and loss in “Never So Good.” Peter usually feels out of place at school, and in his immediate family he is close only to his mother. And even with her there are important subjects about which, Jane sometimes reminds him, one must not speak.

Book II opens a few years after the death of Peter’s twin sister Jane, who comes to Peter as a voice that only he can hear. Jane is an extraordinary creation. One might expect a spectral twin to inhabit an alternate world. Rather, Jane is the sister Peter can never have.

Jane is also Peter’s elder sister: she ages about twice as fast as he, and she seems to have a “grapevine” connection to the future. Toward the end, Peter exclaims that he might think she’d been born in 1939. With equal reason he might surmise that she is speaking to him from the 1970’s. In any event, Jane’s main function is that of an alter ego, one that responds to Peter’s thoughts like a classic chorus and makes him self-reflective far beyond his years.

But Peter’s years also advance, and at the end of Book II, Jane’s mission is complete. She fades away, leaving Peter on his own. He is finally able to mourn her death in the full understanding of its significance.

“Never So Good” is not children’s literature by any stretch of the imagination. Peter’s diary tells his story with a broad overlay of a historical consciousness that — like the song titles — will resonate not with him but with readers who were once more or less Peter’s contemporaries. As Book I, “Windmills Everywhere,” is a compendium of literary history, Book II is a recollection of cultural history. It is also a fond farewell to a childhood lived the mid-20th century.

Copyright © 2010 by Bewildering Stories

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