David Mitchell | Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green is small, as childhood is small, and epic as only coming-of-age can be. It doesn’t wear out its welcome.

 

 

(Random House; 294 pgs; $23.95)
Thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor has a pretty slick cousin named Hugo. Just a few years older than Jason, Hugo is already an expert in smoking, shoplifting, and girls, among other things—or so it seems to Jason. When the cousins get together at an extended-family dinner, it’s a good time for postprandial troublemaking, and for the older boy to introduce the younger to all manner of debauch.

The way that a younger cousin looks up to an older one, and the way the older one abuses that admiration—it’s one of hundreds of pitch-perfect moments in David Mitchell’s coming-of-age tale, Black Swan Green.

In a neat stack of short stories and novels over the past ten years or so, Mitchell has flexed his muscular prose. He gets pacing. He has a knack for spare, graphic description. And best of all, he writes with passion. With the story of Jason Taylor’s thirteenth year, he’s tried to capture and release the innocent, fleeting wonder of youth. Largely, he succeeds.
Black Swan Green is a smallish town in England. Shy Jason, into nature, poetry, video games, and, gradually, girls, has three very real problems. He’s shamed to death by a serious stammer (which, he explains, is not the same as a stutter). His parents, normally caustic toward each other in a cutesy sort of way, have turned downright mean. Could Dad actually be having an affair. Again??

And then there’s the biggie: a vicious school bully called Ross Wilcox. Ross and his cronies just won’t let up. The stammer is Jason’s one-way ticket to Loserville. As the other kids put him down, he sinks deeper and deeper into himself.
By comparison, the whole hormones/girls thing is a piece of cake. Not that anyone in his right mind would even bother with all that:

“Superman II was on TV. I’d seen it at Malvern Cinema about two years ago on Neal Brose’s birthday…Clark Kent gives up his powers just to have sexual intercourse with Lois Lane in a glittery bed. Who’d make such a stupid swap? If you could fly? Deflect nuclear missiles into space? Turn back time by spinning the planet in reverse? Sexual intercourse can’t be that good.”

The humor is winning, and so is the scope. Mitchell’s three previous novels were marked
by postmodern trickery and cosmic ambitions that felt like a young writer trying to wow the reader with stunning leaps. Black Swan Green is small, as childhood is small, and epic as only coming-of-age can be. It doesn’t wear out its welcome.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t stumble a bit, though. Jason’s gushing appreciations of nature’s glories can come off a bit moony. There are too many stock characters here, too—the overbearing uncle, Dad’s arrogant boss, and draconian teachers straight from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Also, Jason’s final standoff with Ross plays a bit too Rocky, unsubtle in its finality.

All is forgiven at Black Swan Green’s very end, though, where we find a typically Mitchell-ian trick: poignancy, clever wordplay, and a final, lyrical kiss of plot leave us reeling. It seems we’ve been in his thrall all along. Mitchell quietly dazzles, and we smile and surrender.

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