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by Elizabeth Hand

The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford, William Morrow, 2008, $25.95.

"Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies," wrote the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay; "Nobody that matters, that is." Jeffrey Ford's beautiful new novel, The Shadow Year, is an account of childhood's kingdom under siege, a book so achingly lovely and, yes, profound, that one longs to call it a masterpiece. Only it seems a bit unfair to burden an author at mid-career with such a weight.

So I'll qualify that intro by saying The Shadow Year is superb, heartbreaking, and masterfully written; in its way, as perfect an evocation of the mystery and hilarity and terror that is American childhood as Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Jean Shepherd's In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, with flickers here and there of David Sedaris's black humor and the frightening fever-dream of Charles Laughton's great movie adaptation of Davis Grubb's Night of the Hunter.

An expansion of Ford's novella "Botch Town," which won the 2007 World Fantasy Award, The Shadow Year begins and ends with the last days of summer, the bittersweet halcyon season that marks the true beginning of a child's year, far more than the random, grownup assignation of January 1. In this I detect a nod to Fellini's Amarcord, the filmmaker's funny, melancholy reverie of his own childhood. The Shadow Year has much in common with Amarcord. The movie's title translates as "I remember," and Fellini completed it when he was just past fifty, the same age as Ford is now. Like Amarcord, The Shadow Year conflates the everyday and the supernatural; overheard adult conversations that take on a gilded patina of legend and the profane, no-bullshit exchanges of kids when they know grownups aren't listening.

The narrator of Ford's tale is the middle of three siblings, suffering through sixth grade in a small Long Island town in the early 1960s. As in "Botch Town," he is never given a name, but it's difficult not to identify him with the author—two of the book's three dedicatees bear the same names as the narrator's siblings—which makes the novel's balancing act of memory and magic all the more impressive. The plot is simple and, by now, familiar to any reader of late-twentieth-century popular fiction: a small town is threatened by a serial killer who preys on both children and adults. The killer, dubbed Mr. White by the protagonist and his older brother, Jim, possesses near-supernatural attributes we've seen before, usually in Stephen King novels—distinctive car (older model, shiny white, tail-finned), distinctive clothing (long white trench coat and hat), unsettling ability to detect the presence of hidden children while seeming to remain invisible to adults. Mr. White is real, though—he attempts to abduct one kid and murders another, and also kills an adult neighbor. But is he the same person as the mysterious Peeping Tom who is glimpsed by various folks throughout the novel?

Mr. White's depredations are eerily foreshadowed in Botch Town, a makeshift basement model of the children's hometown, built of discarded toys, Matchbox cars, and other junk by older brother Jim, and inhabited by toy figures the three siblings name after their real-life counterparts. Mary, the youngest child, is able to predict where Mr. White will strike next, and this concession to the mechanics of supernatural fiction gives The Shadow Year a passing similarity to works like King's Hearts in Atlantis, the stories in Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, and in particular Glen Hirshberg's spooky, underrated The Snowman's Children.

Yet The Shadow Year is better than all of these, because it is a more nuanced, far more delicate novel. "Delicate" seems an odd word to describe a book wherein Sherlock Holmes appears as a leitmotif, described thus: "The great detective came across to me like a snob, the type my father once described as 'believing that the sun rose and set from his asshole;'" or where the narrator has this encounter with his grandparents —

On the TV, Hercules was lifting a giant boulder. Pop was awake now, reading a magazine. He saw I was also awake and said, "You shouldn't watch this junk," nodding toward the television. "You should read a magazine. It's educational. See?" he said, and turned the magazine in his hands so I could see the page he was on. There was no writing, just a picture of a naked woman sitting on the lap of a guy in a gorilla suit. I could feel my face flush. Nan looked over and laughed. "Put that away," she said.
The characterization of the narrator's family is so dead-on it almost hurts to read, caught between heartbreak and laughing out loud—Jim's severe, don't-argue-with-me pronouncements on topics such as school projects and the hierarchy of Halloween candy (Milky Ways at the top, home-baked goods at the bottom); the unsparing, deeply loving depiction of their mother's alcoholism; Mary's odd powers and imaginary friends, evidence of an acute imagination that seems as though it might veer into a more frightening adult psychological disorder; the narrator's casual yet deeply felt discovery that he likes to write in a notebook—all take on the buoyant gravitas of a modern classic being born, right there on the page.

Because what Ford does in The Shadow Year is capture childhood the way it really is, starlight that reaches us a million miles away, in adulthood, all the more fragile and breathtaking because we know we're seeing something that is gone forever. G. K. Chesterton, another laureate of the magical mundane, wrote "What is loved becomes immediately what can be lost"; and The Shadow Year is both celebration of and memento mori for a kind of American childhood that doesn't exist anymore, except in fiction.

It did once, though. I can attest to that, having grown up in a time and place not far removed from the setting of The Shadow Year. But Ford's book isn't an exercise in Baby Boomer nostalgia. It's far too hard-headed for that, far too blackly funny; far too real, even as Ford plainly stakes his claim to a homegrown surrealism as distinctive as David Lynch's, as when their mother takes the three children to see a grimy circus, complete with sideshow, camped outside town —

Even I wanted to see the Blood-Sweating Hippo, but we turned and walked away. My mother bought us cotton candy—plumes of blue wrapped in a paper cone. The first bite was like eating hair, until it suddenly melted into straight sugar....

We made our way to a circular enclosure and peered over the walls. There was a lightbulb above the ring that lit the slick hide of the hippo. The creature lay there, in straw sodden with its own piss, huge and unmoving. All it did was breathe. We stared at it as long as we could. Then Jim picked Mary up and held her so she could see. She pointed to the edge of the enclosure at something I hadn't noticed before. There was a track that went around the rim of the circle, and on it was a turtle. A few seconds later, she pointed to another spot, and there was a rabbit.

"The tortoise and the hare," said my mother.

"What does that have to do with a hippo?" I asked.

"Ask the midget," she said.

The Shadow Year plays out across a year in realtime, kid-time. The big events include murders, that attempted abduction, and a haunting, but they're played out against the things that really matter when you're eleven years old: Halloween, Christmas, beating up the kid who beat you up first, a long, unplanned afternoon with your father, listening to grownups talk when they think you're asleep. Ford's narrative isn't leisurely so much as oneiric. I finished this book as though waking from a long dream, like Alice returned from Looking-Glass World; trying to puzzle out which parts were real, which invented; what had actually happened to me forty years ago and what I had only just read about. It's proof of Jeffrey Ford's narrative power that, ultimately, the distinction doesn't much matter. His made-up world trumps ours all hollow.

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