Four stories intertwine to make up The Alex Crow. Ariel and his adopted brother Max are at an all-boys American summer camp designed, ostensibly, as a place “Where boys rediscover the fun of boyhood!” which seems mostly to mean no electricity, cold, leaky cabins, and a series of wilderness inspired activities that Max, Ariel and their new friend Coby do their damndest to subvert as far as possible. Alongside this, Ariel tells us his backstory: a serious and heart-tearing tale of survival in a country torn apart by civil war.
But there is also the melting man: Leonard. His brain has been tampered with, causing a series of auditory and visual hallucinations that are somehow simultaneously terrifying and hilarious to read about. Lenny is driving a hideous U-haul across America looking for the mysterious Beaver King, who he plans to blow up using the atomic bomb he’s built in the back of the van. And there is a series of journal entries from the doctor of The Alex Crow, a failed Arctic expedition in 1880 which has become lodged in ice.
All of this lies against the strange and weird backdrop of the Merrie-Seymour Research Group, which runs the camp the boys are attending, and at which their father works. But what connects them to Leonard and The Alex Crow, and how did Ariel wind up in their midst? Much like Smith’s previous book, Grasshopper Jungle, the jigsaw pieces are gradually and inexorably pulled together into one shocking picture that makes you question, well, everything that Smith has told you up to that point: is Ariel really who he thinks he is? Are all of the melting man’s hallucinations really hallucinations? And is the summer camp really just a summer camp?
There are some pretty crazy things and some extremely serious things in this book, but I think what probably stands out strongest are the characters and their trueness – well, the adults are all exceedingly messed up, but the three boys are the ones on whom all of our emotions go. Andrew Smith surely writes about teenage boys in the truest way possible, from Ariel and his quiet, internal struggles to Max, who lives as loudly as he can. It’s a fucked up world that Smith’s characters are growing up in, but somehow, scarily, the crazy science that supports it feels like it could perfectly easily and unsurprisingly be real - the fucked up part are the people who chose to make these things a reality.
And then there's the part where Smith narrates with such detail and close attention it’s impossible to miss a thing – all intentions are laid out for the reader and yet the story remains intriguing, surprising, and clever. Themes of language and reality, manipulation and control, survival and extinction pulse across the pages and while it is not quite as ‘blow your mind’ as Grasshopper Jungle (how, after all, is one supposed to follow a book like that?), it undoubtedly has that intense, fucked-up feel to it’s world and it’s words. As everything begins to come together, the denouement approaches ever faster in flash of horrible realization.
Just, please, Mr. Smith, if one day you do donate your brain to science, make sure it’s not the Merrie-Seymour Research Group or any of their affiliates…