After hearing nothing but praise for Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, I promptly put it on my to-reads list, where it sat so long I’m surprised it didn’t sprout dandelions. If plants did grow from books, the wishy weed flowers would be fitting for a story about a 16-year-old guy with terminal illness. Because even once doctors deliver a diagnosis, our minds make room for the possibility that A) they are wrong B) we will be the one exception or C) this world is more than meets the eye (like Transformers!), so anything can happen.
Cameron is the sixteen-year-old son of two college professors. If high school had a course in underachievement, he’d have nailed it. That’s why nobody is too concerned, not even Cam, when weird symptoms like muscle spasms and lethargy start to surface. One minute he’s trying to escape fire monsters and the next he’s lying in a hospital bed rapidly dying of the human strain of mad cow disease.
It sounds rather bleak, but Bray writes Cam’s voice like she has a scared, cranky teenage boy trapped in her brain. Her punchy, fast writing keep things moving, quickly bypassing the grim prognosis in favor of Dulcie, a cute punk rock angel with a mission for Cam: If he can find Dr. X and save the world from dark matter, he may also find a cure. Dulcie gives him this magic Disney World wristband that will keep his sickness at bay for exactly two weeks. Also, he must bring along his hypochondriac dwarf friend Gonzo because everyone needs a friend and Cam’s been solo for too long.
The boys bust out of the hospital and begin a quest that takes them from a seedy Jazz club in New Orleans, to the bowling alley of a militaristic happiness cult, to spring break in Florida where reality shows and chances to lose virginity await. And somewhere along the way, Cam picks up what looks like a garden gnome, but is actually Balder, a new best friend and Viking god ready to help in exchange for a ride to the sea.
I’m at Mardi Gras, sandwiched between beer-soaked drunkards, with nothing more to go on than some vague, probably delusional belief that I’m where I should be.
Cam is told to read into seemingly random coincidences as clues to guide them to their fate. At times he questions his grasp on reality, but he pushes forward because the alternative to seeking out Dr. X is to let Death catch up to him. Putting faith in signs and trusting coincidences starts to feel less far-fetched as the trail to Dr. X’s heats up.
Bray mines the notion of synchronicity, how if you pay attention everything means something. For all of the hallucinatory descriptions and left field plotting, I was never confused. It reads like she knew exactly what she wanted to do with this story and had a grand time writing it.
Finally a disease story that addresses the questions the mind clings to when you’re sick or living in the waiting room. Like “Where do we come from?” and “Where do we go next?” Lucid moments within surreal scenes create this sense of chaos to underscore the truth that some things are out of our control, but why not try and save the world and make some friends with the time that’s left? Dulcie reminds Cam that all that matters is for him to be where he is right now, wise advice for a lovesick angel who claims to not know anything.
I enjoyed Going Bovine far more than Bray’s earlier Gemma Doyle trilogy. It’s funny and manages to twist dark thoughts with the manic energy you wish terminally sick people could have so they could experience as much as possible rather than spend their last days in a hospital room.
But hope has not forgotten you. So ask it to dinner. It’s probably hungry and would appreciate the invitation.