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Well-aged coming of age - ‘Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?’

August 27, 2019
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What if you never grew up?

Not in a magical Peter Pan sense or anything like that – you aged, you moved from being a child to an adult, you got a job and a life, but you simply never … grew up. You never crossed whatever indefinable thresholds necessary to live a grown-up life.

What if your coming of age story happened when you were 47 years old?

Brock Clarke’s latest novel gives us just such a hero. “Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” (Algonquin, $26.95) features a titular hero who winds up venturing forth on a better-late-than-never journey where he’s finally confronted with the simple truth that he doesn’t really know who he is. Swept up into a whirlwind by an unexpected relative, whisked away to locales far more exotic than his small-town upbringing could ever have prepared him for.

It’s about figuring out which parts of you are the ones that matter and learning not to worry so much about the parts that don’t. It’s about coming to terms with a life lived on the path of least resistance and making the decision to let things be hard. It’s about family and faith and the nature of love.

Oh, and there’s a lot of John Calvin in here too.

Calvin is in his late 40s, living in his small central Maine hometown of Congress. He’s a blogger for the pellet stove industry, a job that allows him to work remotely from wherever he likes, yet he still lives at home with his mother, a minister who once wrote a famous book about the theologian John Calvin.

Calvin spent much of his childhood steeped in the work of his namesake, though said saturation failed to inspire the same sort of impassioned response in him as it had for his mother. His dad was a legendary local high school coach, a three-season guy – and Calvin never really clicked in that world either. He was married once, to a fellow pellet stove blogger named Dawn, yet despite their vocational similarities, the relationship didn’t last.

When Calvin’s mother dies, his world is completely upended – and not just by the loss. No, there’s an addition that throws Calvin for a loop. Specifically, his Aunt Beatrice, sister to his mother and a person that until this moment Calvin did not know existed.

Before he knows it, Calvin has been whisked away from Congress and dragged along on an international voyage packed with adventure and intrigue. Aunt Beatrice is unlike anyone Calvin has ever encountered – aggressively honest and casually mean, with a circle of extremely shady associates whose business ventures and other activities aren’t technically what you’d call totally legal.

Interpol agents and antiquities thieves and John Calvin groupies – that’s who populates the waters Calvin must now navigate. Oh, and there are some people from his own past who might be up to some shenanigans of their own. All of it leading Calvin Bledsoe to ask – perhaps for the first time – “Who am I?” And to come up with – DEFINITELY for the first time – an answer.

“Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” is the kind of book that doesn’t come along every day, an interesting inversion of a fairly common literary trope. It’s an unusually well-aged coming of age tale, a balding bildungsroman if you will, dropping the spiritual awakening and self-actualization of a youngster crossing the cusp into adulthood into an emotionally inert blogger pushing 50. A character like this – one who presents as innocent and culturally ignorant without ever coming off as stupid or hateful or mean – is difficult to pull off, let alone as your hero.

The funny part is that it works. That’s far from the ONLY funny part, of course. Clarke demonstrates a dry wryness throughout that juxtaposes nicely with the baseline absurdity that lurks just beneath the surface (and occasionally rears its head to make its presence fully known). The narrative is rife with red herrings and odd twists to offset the scattershot emotional motivations; it surrounds the ultra-predictable Calvin with people who are fundamentally unpredictable. As you might imagine, the resulting chaos makes for a hell of a read.

There’s something almost Garpian about Calvin – he’d be right at home at the center of a John Irving novel. Then again, there’s a T.C. Boyle kind of vibe to the book as well, plus a whiff of Richard Russo’s distinct grasp of small-town life in general and small-town Maine life in particular. But really, the comparisons don’t really matter – the book is 100% Brock Clarke.

“Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?” is an engaging literary feat, a coming of age story for the already-aged. In Calvin, we get an unlikely hero on an even more unlikely journey, a weird and weirdly profound pilgrim on a spiritual voyage he doesn’t really understand.

Just remember: you’re never too old to grow up.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 August 2019 10:53

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