Kelly Reviews the 2012 Printz Winner “Where Things Come Back” by John Corey Whaley

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Summary: Lily, Arkansas is not an exciting place. Having grown up there, seventeen year old Cullen Witter is painfully aware of its limitations. The burger joint, drive-in movie theater, and river are the highlights of Lily’s social scene. In a town defined by its stasis, the huge events which occur before Cullen’s senior year are especially shocking. His only cousin dies from a drug overdose, a supposedly extinct bird is sighted nearby which brings strangers to the town in droves, and his younger brother Gabriel goes missing. In the months that follow, Cullen faces the changes in the best way he knows how: through dry humor, the help of his best friend Lucas, and escapes into a fantasy world of zombies and heroes.  

I had no idea what this book was about upon picking up my copy. It was an assignment for my Young Adult materials course, so I had to read it. Naturally, I read the blurb on the flap of the book jacket (god, that’s such an ungainly description) before anything else. It immediately calls into question your expectations, and tells you to drop them then and there. It then poses questions that you might have upon finishing the book, a rather saucy assumption on the book jacket’s part. Essentially, it promised me an exploration of what things mean.

Y’all know I’m a sucker for meaning.

Let’s briefly speak of expectations. A book about a missing brother sounds depressing enough. Add in the small town aspect and a dead cousin, and you think it will dive headfirst into overbearing tragedy.  Where Things Come Back defies this expectation by delivering a story filled with humor and nuance. John Corey Whaley creates this palpable sense of loss but it coexists with a resiliency of spirit that made this book incredibly insightful and poignant.

Additionally, it’s not a straight forward, first person account. There is another narrative twined throughout the novel. It involves the story of Benton Sage, a quiet boy who strives to please his father by becoming a Christian missionary, and Cabot Searcy, a charismatic boy who thinks he is going to change the world. Told from a third person perspective, these chapters are somewhat startling. There is no context (at least not initially), but it becomes clear how all three boys are thematically connected. They have all lost something, and they are connected by the void. Where their stories diverge is how they deal with the loss; essentially, how each chooses to create meaning from the change. While Cullen’s story dominates most of the chapters, the other narratives manifest and echo throughout. There is also a connection through the deuterocanonical books of the bible and the Lazarus, the extinct woodpecker. Seriously, this book laughs knowingly at your preconceptions. Just go along for the ride.

Cullen is truly what makes this strange story work, and work beautifully. He’s acutely aware of himself and of the bubbles that people create in order to keep the world easily defined and ordered. Despite knowing this, Whaley shows us how Cullen is just as guilty of creating bubbles. An important figure is Lucas, Cullen’s best friend. At first, we see him as this perfect teen – he gets good grades, is kind to everyone, and stands up against the bullies. Yet Lucas is a complex character, and their relationship is dynamic and sometimes filled with tension. There’s John Barling, the man who claims the Lazarus is alive in Lily. Cullen immediately decides he is a hack, and loathes him for it.  Or Ada Taylor, the gorgeous girl of his dreams about whom he knows nothing. As the novel progresses, Cullen actually gets to know these people. They don’t easily fit into the small categories he’s created for them, and he must expand his bubbles (and sometimes pop them entirely) in order to make room.

Another aspect of Cullen’s character is how hard he works to keep a distance. He has a sardonic sense of humor which is used like a shield. This one line struck me, “those two weeks were mostly uneventful save for the massive forty-man search party” that was organized to look for Gabriel. Obviously it was a terrible two weeks of not knowing if your brother is dead or alive, but Cullen reduces it to a dry sentence. Whaley also uses this really interesting technique to convey Cullen’s withdrawal from too much emotion. Cullen slips into these trances where he is narrating a fantasy that comes out of real life. He often imagines himself defending the innocent from the popular jocks as they have turned into zombies. Or he’s talking to the giant Lazarus on the banks of a river. Sometimes these third person narratives blend back into the first person. Other times, you assume they are completely made up. It keeps us off balance and it keeps part of Cullen locked away.

There are moments of genuine sadness that come burgeoning up through the text, despite Cullen’s best efforts. When Ada seeks him out to ask him how he is, he breaks down. Experiencing sincerity of concern instead of the false curiosity of others shows us just how effected Cullen is by his brother’s disappearance. At another point, he’s talking out what it means to lose a sibling. There would only be one side of the story now, and “memories could be told but not shared.” Ahem…why is it raining on my face? Whaley captures this sense of having a sibling perfectly, and so it made it even more heartbreaking to have the loss articulated so well.

Sometimes there were just these gorgeous sentences that caught you unawares: “we were all just in the prelude to disappointment after disappointment.” Cullen’s prelude is more like a purgatory; he’s stuck on several levels. He is a teen, not really a kid and not yet an adult. He is expected to go to college, but sees himself being pulled back to Lily despite his best laid plans. And of course, he’s stuck on Gabriel. He desperately wants to believe his brother is alive, while knowing he is probably not. While I’m not going to give anything away, working through the prelude with Cullen is unlike anything I’ve read before. Intricate, funny, and heartbreaking, Where Things Come Back is as unexpected as it is beautiful.

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