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Friday, November 21, 2014

Fred Venturini: "The Heart Does Not Grow Back"

Author:  Fred Venturini
Title:  The Heart Does Not Grow Back
Plot Type:  Science Fiction/Fantasy     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality—2-3; Humor—2-2 
Publisher:  Picador (11/2014)        

     In his debut novel, Venturini presents an anomaly: a social misfit of a superhero who tries to save the people he loves while destroyingand yet not destroyinghimself in the process. Dale Sampson is a lonely, nerdy, sixth grader when we first meet him. He's the too-introspective boy who hangs out on the far fringes of the playground, always alone. Dale lives with his mother, a hard-working single mom who is slowly dying of undiagnosed cancer (because there is no money for doctor bills). When a group of mean girls make Dale the butt of their demeaning game, their actions bring Dale to the attention of Mack Tucker, the most popular and athletic boy in the school. Unexpectedly, instead of bullying Dale, Mack befriends him, and they begin a close "bro" relationship that lasts through the next decades.

     The book is divided into three parts (four, if you count the prologue): "The Blind Man," "Disintegration," and 'Regeneration." Part 1 takes Dale from sixth grade through high school and includes the death of his mother. Over the years and through several beatings by Clint, a sociopathic classmate who hates him and Mark, Dale realizes that he heals much faster than other people. Then just before graduation, Dale attends a party where he intends to meet up with his dream girl, Regina, and tragedy strikes. Regina dies, Mack's injuries end the possibility of a baseball career, and Dale loses an ear and some fingers. Miraculously though, after an extremely painful period of healing, Dale's appendages regenerate within days. Dale's mom views this as "God making up for what was taken…making things right." (p. 76), but Dale isn't so sure. After she dies, Dale ponders his situation. "Nothing had been made right or whole by my miraculous healing. A dead mother, for what, an index finger? Regina's corpse for a useless piece of ear flesh? My friend's golden shoulder, his pride,...for what? Being able to pick up a dirty sock?…Everything was taken, and I was left with a power I didn't want or even need….The parts I needed to regenerate, the pain I needed to subside, were deeper and there forever, untouched by my abilities." (p. 78) And that's the heart of the novel: the fact that Dale hates his regenerative abilities, sees no purpose to them, and wants only to live a normal life with a girl who loves him and a friend who supports him. But he doesn't know how to do that. This is a man with almost unlimited physical healing capabilities, but his emotional woundswhich are ruining his lifeare far beyond the reach of his powers. Other than the crazy killer from his childhood, Dale doesn't face any supervillains; he is his own worst enemy. 

     In Part 2, which begins several years after graduation, Dale has a minimum-wage seasonal job as a weed-whacker on a local mowing crew. Mack has gone off to college, where he appears to spend most of his time drinking and partying with as many women as possible. In contrast, Dale lives a solitary life, existing on cereal, pizza, and beer; watching TV reruns and religious programming, particularly a sleazy healer; and obsessing about suicide. He buys a gun at Wal-Mart and also contemplates hanging, razor blades, asphyxiation, and electrocution. Dale figures that everyone is doing something that will hasten their death. "Call suicide what you want. If you're not blowing your brains out, you're dying by neglect. You're ignoring that suspicious mole, or smoking, or cultivating that roll of belly fat, or eating too much sodium…" (p. 87) 

     Then one day Dale runs into an old acquaintance: Regina's twin sister, Raeanna, who is a check-out clerk at Wal-Mart. Rae is married to an abuser named Harold, and Dale immediately falls for her and begins planning to save her. Just as with Regina, Dale's "love affair" with Rae is all in his head. He never discusses his feelings or his plans with Rae and is soon faced not only with rejection, but with Harold's vengeful actions when he learns of Dale's attentions to his wife. Dale's plans require money, so he takes the first step in making use of his regenerative powers by trying to find a way to sell his organs for as much cash as possible. The Internet becomes his impersonal, all-knowing source of informationabout Harold, about regeneration, about street-fighting, and about psychological profiling. "Who needs a mental-health professional when one can Google the answers and self-medicate?" (p. 127) But once again, Dale's actions do more harm than good, both to himself and to Rae. Meanwhile, the government has gotten wind of Dale's abilities and they're on his trail, so he heads off to California with Mack.

     In Part 3, Dale has arrived in California with a wild, 21st century idea about what to do with his superpowers. He will star in a reality show on which he will donate limbs and organs each week to needy people. As the show's producer says, "An honest-to-goodness superpower, and instead of putting a mask on, you're taking it to reality TV." (p. 177) In his mind, Dale sees this new part of his life as a way of finding himself and winning Rae's heart, but again it doesn't work. During the first season, Dale donates and then regenerates most of his limbs and organs, but "Even though most of my body was different, I was still the same goddamned Dale." (p. 200) And that Dale is still a socially awkward, lonely virgin who dreams of belonging to someonea dream woman who will love him unequivocally. He continues to dream of a life with Rae, even though she has rejected him and has never contacted him in California, and he even makes an attempt at a relationship with the woman to whom he donated his kidneys. Nothing ever works out for Dale, though, sometimes because of his consistently bad decisions and choices, but mostly because he never articulates his thoughts and dreams to the people involvedthe people he loves, or thinks he loves. On a podcast interview, Venturini explains that generally the right people (in fiction and films) get superpowers, but in this book,  "I wanted the wrong guy to get the superpowers." Dale is definitely the wrong guy.

     I particularly appreciated the author's take on healing. Usually, a superhero heals instantly, with seemingly little pain or discomfort, but that's not the case with Dale. Having been a fire victim and a car-accident victim, Venturini knows from experience the pain that comes during the healing process, and he allows us to watch Dale as he suffers through the excruciating itching and burning as limbs regrow and the semiconscious suffering as organs come back to life. It's a different approach that emphasizes the fact that Dale isn't your ordinary superhero.   

     In the final chapters, Dale's life comes to a tipping point when Rae shows up at his door. Once again, Dale makes his own private plans, and once again things go wrong. There are several twists at the end, one that I was able to predict, but still enjoy, and the finale leaves Dale with a new freedom to regenerate his lifehis inner life, if he can just pull himself together and get out of his head and in touch with realitytrue reality, not TV reality. That ending, by the way, comes perilously close to becoming a unicorn-and-rainbows finale.

     Although flawed in several ways, this is a fascinating novel with an inventive take on the superhero persona. Dale is a fully realized character, with his  self-destructive introspection, his inability to progress beyond the adolescent stage with women, his hatred for his constant regeneration, and his untreated psychological problems that date back to the tragic shootings and his mother's death. Mack is also an original character, the popular jock who hides his father's physical abuse behind stories of brave adventures and who usually gives Dale the worse advice possible. Their close relationship is a highlight of the book. Unfortunately, the women in Dale's lifeRegina, the popular girl; Rae, the abused wife who stands by her man; and Hollie, the emotionally fragile kidney recipient seething with inner rageare all stereotypical figures who act in predictable ways and are not explored in any depth. They serve primarily as the catalysts for Dale's worst decisions, and they suffer the most from the destructive aftermath of his attentions. 

     For the most part, Venturini's story telling is at the highest level. The only scene that seemed awkward and out-of-nowhere is the one in part 3 that involves a gun battle and a car crash. On a podcast interview, Venturini confesses that he tends to go over the top with his final chapters, and that's the case with this scene. But even with these characterization problems and minor plot issues, Venturini's fast-paced story pulled me in all the way through to the very end. Dale Sampson is a fresh and welcome addition to superhero fiction.

     To read the first two chapters, click HERE to go to this book's page and then click on the cover art. Click HERE to read an excerpt from chapter 8.

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