by Weston Ochse
There is no denying the popularity of coming of age stories. From McCammon’s Boy’s Life to Simmons’ Summer of Night to Barker’s The Thief of Always to King and Straub’s The Talisman and everything in between, placing children and young adults in dire circumstances and voyeuristically adventuring with them through the threat seems to be a favorite literary pastime. When I wrote Scarecrow Gods and told the coming of age tale of Danny, it was as much an homage to those great tales that had come before as it was my signature addition to the great body of coming of age works.
Wikipedia defines Coming of Age as a young person’s formal transition from adolescence to adulthood. The nature of the transition varies and could be anything from the normal methodical matriculation to the age of majority or something more forced and immediate, such as an event or series of events that engender change in the adolescent’s outlook and interaction with the complications of life.
But why are these stories so popular? My belief is that it’s not that we enjoy reading about children, but rather that because we were children, we can as adults more easily relate as we relive many of the things that happened to us as they happen to them on the written page. Children as protagonists are archetypical and represent everything good and hopeful. As a rule, Children aren’t evil, nor do they commit irredeemable crimes. Thus the child or young adult as the protagonist is us, or how we’d want us to be, if given the chance to insinuate ourselves into that plot.
In Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Cory Mackerson discovers for the first time that not only does a world exists outside of Zephyr, Alabama, but evil exists in his formally perfect universe as he tries to come to grips with his father’s newfound fears. The threat of loss is woven throughout the plot, creating a sort of literary panic as we walk alongside Cory as the events unfold.
Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night begins on the last day of school as students are being released for the summer. All of us can remember that impatient joy barely held in check as we sat, listened to the teacher speak Charlie-Brown-Grown-Up-Speak, watching the clock on the wall inexorably herald our freedom. In the book, five adolescents roar into summer, only to discover that their group many be the only thing that can save their friends, families and maybe even the world from the giant worms, the dead soldier, the principal and a preternatural rendering truck that follows them like a stalking dog. I still remember a scene where they are in the corn atop a tractor in fear for their lives and I remember being as nervous for them as I ever was for myself.
In perhaps one of the greatest tour-de-force coming of age novels written, the powerful talents of Stephen King and Peter Straub are combined to provide us with The Talisman. In this book, Jack Sawyer journeys from America’s East Coast to the West Coast to find the talisman that will save his mother from a horrible death from cancer. Wonderful in its otherworldliness, the reader is keenly aware that the boy’s mother is dying and that every delay and detour could mean that he’d miss the chance to save her.
I’ve spoken long into convention nights with friends and fans about these books, each of us happy to have read them, but harrowed by the readings of them. We lived the characters to such degrees that the very act of processing the words through our minds brought about a literary transubstantiation. Many of us admitted to crying in each of these books, well-aware that as adults we should be old enough not to allow our emotions such free reign, but were unable to control ourselves as we re-came of age with the characters.
My son turns eighteen today. He has not had to face giant worms or werewolves or a supernatural rendering truck, but his life has had its share of tribulation. Since his ninth birthday, he and I have been separated by sometimes great distances. Divorce is a hard lesson for anyone to learn, but for a child it’s even harder. Their whole perception of love and trust is shattered and has to evolve so that they can adapt to this new strange family system that has formed. I saw him as often as I could, when I could. Sometimes the Army kept us apart. Sometimes it was time. Sometimes it was money. But I tried not to let these keep us apart for long. We spent every summer and most holidays together.
And today he’s eighteen. He’s learned to do so much without me. He’s been in his share of trouble. Bad grades and cute girls have conspired to keep him from over-achieving. All in all, if he was a character in a novel, he’d be pretty normal. An experienced author would realize that to make his life more interesting, they’d have to add some unique character device. Well, that was already done. One thing I left out was that he was born with birth defects- a clef lip and a clef palette. Not something that would handicap him physically, but something that could create enough emotional baggage to sink a cruiseliner, especially considering the mean potential of children and their need to build themselves up by bringing other’s down.
I’m a huge fan of coming of age novels. I like to step into the shoes of the characters, experience their innocence and wonder, and succeed in the end against almost impossible odds. But that’s just pretend. I don’t have any real emotional stake in the characters of the novels because they aren’t real people. While thinking about my son’s birthday and the childhood he’s leaving behind, I couldn’t help but think that he starred in his own coming of age novel—a true life memoir of one boy against the world, against genetics and fate, struggling to become the man everyone thought he should be, the man he wanted to be but didn’t really know to be. He lived the life like any character lived their plot and I, his father, lived it as a reader.
There were times when I had as much influence over events in his life as a reader would the events in a novel. I was a voyeur, helpless to stop what was happening, even when I knew they’d lead to a bad end. I didn’t live with him. My relationship with his mother was such that she would hang up the phone at the first hint of conflict, even if it meant talking about what was best for our son. I had a certain amount of control and influence, but my success was predicated on my son’s willingness to follow my dictums, and my ability to deliver my messages in a package palatable enough for him to swallow. When I wasn’t looking, which was far too often, he did what he wanted, his wishes and my desires only sometimes intersecting.
My son’s real-life coming of age novel was sometimes a comedy, sometimes a drama and sometimes a horror. There were times I didn’t think he’d make it. There were other times that made me cry as I stepped into the footsteps of the character, my son, and tried to cha
nnel the emotions he was most certainly feeling. There were other time when I was, frankly, too scared to open the book of his life because I knew what was going to happen in the next chapter. But like in fiction, characters live and do things whether you read them or not, and any fear of reading what was about to happen in my son’s novel did nothing to change the prosecution of the plot, my hesitation meaning as much to the universe as my the real-life tears I shed for Cody Mackerson at the end of Boy’s Life.
Now that my son has turned eighteen, I’m closing the novel of his early years. Now that he’s come of age, the coming of age novel must end. The last chapter ends with these words: with a good heart and a discerning mind, he passed to adulthood, not quite ready for those challenges life was going to throw his way, but willing to battle through them, for he was a man, and that was what men did.
As readers we read coming of age novels to relive the hopes and possibilities of a character’s future. As writers we write coming of age novels to entertain and battle test morals we’ve come to embrace as graduates of our own coming of age novels. Most fathers are reoccurring characters in their own children’s coming of age novels, able to influence and advise as each plot device unfolds. And then there are us unlucky few who are voyeurs to our own children, readers of their coming of age novels, turning pages with as much fear as courage, hoping that by the end of the novel, our children, those bastions of our unparalleled love, will survive to live on.
I am proud to say that my son has made it past the first book in his trilogy of life. Book two is adulthood, and although I’m once again forced into the role of reader, for this I am not as lonely, for all of us are powerless in the face of our children’s adult momentum as we are forced to turn the pages of their destiny as they step, day-by-day through life.
Good Luck, Zachary. You were an exciting read. I look forward to our next volume.
(For a glimpse at my son in action click here.)
**Thanks to Richard Steinberg. He asked me to trade with him so he could write an essay about his mother. Of course I jumped to his aid, but in doing so, realized that the day he traded me for was my son’s birthday. Too much coincidence for me to let it pass.