Going Bovine

What if Don Quixote were a 16-year-old kid living in Texas, whose uneventful life suddenly became an adventure when he was diagnosed with mad cow disease? What if his Sancho Panza took the form of a hypochondriacal dwarf named Gonzo, and his Dulcinea a punk rock angel named Dulcie? What if his journey took him from a secretly sinister snack-n-bowl (where no one ever gets less than a strike) to a MTV-style beach house in Florida? And what if, for good measure, the author of this epic tale threw in some stuff about physics, time travel, an evil snow globe company, the Norse god Balder and the Small World ride at Disney World? In Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, this is exactly what happens…but the strange thing is, it totally works.

Going Bovine is the kind of weird, gutsy, balls-to-the-wall experiment that could easily crash and burn, but which, somehow, is all the better for its completely out-there premise. Bray doesn’t shy away from either serious issues or all-out quirkiness, which is why this novel soars when it could easily falter. It’s not perfect—it’s too overpacked, too flamboyant, and too self-referential to be completely accessible—but its messy, sprawling nature is, for the right reader, precisely where its charm lies.

…It’s probably not hard to guess that the trick worked on me. I was completely enamored of Bray’s hyperactive exercise in wit, wisdom, and a whole new level of surrealism. I loved her sense of humor—which is a prerequisite if you plan to enjoy this book—but I was equally enchanted by her endless imagination. To begin, the premise is completely insane: Sixteen-year-old Cameron Smith is a slacker high school student who starts to have weird health problems. In short, he’s losing both his control over his body and his grasp on reality. A doctor gives a completely improbable diagnosis. Mad cow disease. And then things get really weird.

Cameron enters the hospital, but he doesn’t plan to stay. He and his roommate Gonzo are destined for great things. Armed with a magical Disney World wristband given to him by an angel only he can see, Cameron is just healthy enough to spend the next few weeks on a journey in search of the one man who can save his life. Unsurprisingly, for this book at least, the man is called Dr. X, and he’s just come back from another dimension. Cameron and Gonzo—who has been promised that there’s something in this trip for him, too—begin their journey in New Orleans in search of a jazz musician who continues to perform despite the fact that he may have died years ago. They never stay in one place too long, however, as they are constantly threatened by both the fire giants who want to kill them and their parents who want to take them home. Yeah, I know.

It’s impossible to summarize the book, so the best way to review it is to give an impression of what it’s about. And that, essentially, is…well, everything. This book asks the big questions as well as the small ones. What’s real? What’s meaningful? Is there really an internet fetish site called “Naughty Gnomes”? Bray’s ideas are big, complex, and multitudinous, so the resulting story can’t help but be ambitious. Nonetheless, it is fun, entertaining, and a surprisingly breezy read despite its length of almost 500 pages. There are plenty of memorable moments, from Cameron and Gonzo’s narrow escape of the cult-like CESSNAB (The Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack-N-Bowl) to the wild spring break that involves everything from gnome-napping to a dwarf in an electric chair. If you don’t get Bray’s sense of humor, you’ll likely curse her editor, and wonder why this book resulted in Bray being published rather than institutionalized. If you do, though, you’ll totally understand why it won the Printz Award in 2010 and why I’m wholeheartedly recommending it now.

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