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Every Boy Should Have a Man
By Preston L. Allen
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
I think the best way to decide whether Preston L. Allen's new novel Every Boy Should Have a Man might be for you, is just to state what it is. It's a fairly straightforward speculative novel depicting a world where humans are no longer the world's dominant species. In the novel, some evolutionary wire got crossed somewhere, and we've ended up with humans and "oafs." Oafs are basically humans that are thirteen feet tall, sometimes taller. In this new world, humans are the oafs' pets. Sometimes, if the oafs get hungry, the humans become food.
Every Boy Should Have a Man begins when the "boy" of the title, an oaf named Zloty, finds a "man," a human male, on his walk home from school and adopts him as a pet, in much the same way that a human boy might adopt a dog. The man the boy finds is a "talking man." "Talking mans" are a luxury only the wealthy can afford, and the boy is poor. One day the boy is out walking his man, and a confrontation happens. Boy and man are spotted by the mayor's wife. One of her many mans has run away from home, and she accuses the boy of stealing his new pet. The boy is heartbroken, and the man goes to live with the mayor's wife. The next day the boy comes home from school to find a young female man, along this a note from his father: "Every boy should have a man."
The story of this novel then, is the story of the boy and his new female man. The story eventually branches off to follow the boy's man's daughter. But rather than spoil the novel's plot, I'll state a few more facts. It turns out that the world of the oafs is separated by our world by a very tall staircase that ascends from the peak of a mountain in our world to the bottom of a cave in the world of the oafs. The reason we discover this is that a human named Jack, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, "adventurer, giant-killer and scholar" eventually enters the story. Also of note is that in the world of the oafs, gold is plentiful, and is used to weave clothes and make musical instruments, among other things. Thus, since Jack is able to move back and forth between both worlds, he is a wealthy man.
The jacket copy here promises "echoes of Margaret Atwood," which must mean that this book is supposed to remind us of The Handmaid's Tale. And the two books do have some very basic similarities. But The Handmaid's Tale feels drawn from real-world trends, notably a kind of mid-1980s push-back against the women's liberation movement that lasted from the late '60s through the '70s. Atwood's female subjugation fantasy is horrifying, but what draws us in is and propels the plot is the idea that with a few false steps our real world could easily become something like the world Atwood is describing.
In the end, that's what's missing from Every Boy Should Have a Man. The novel just isn't effective as a cautionary tale, or as a piece of speculative fiction. When I picked up this book, I was expecting allegory, but there is none, or none that I could see. For the first half of the novel, I thought the moral of the story might have something to do with humans and our relationship to dogs, something to do with the immorality of pet ownership. It speaks to Allen's skill, and to the hypnotic notes he hit in the first hundred pages of this novel, that I was willing to follow him into such a story. Alas, those themes never really materialize. In the last third of the book, it's as if Allen sensed what was missing and decided to impose a moral, but that part of book gets very heavy handed and preachy. The themes Allen expounds upon in those pages are not ones the reader cares about.
In an interview that Allen did at The Rumpus just after this book released, he was asked what inspired the story. In Allen's response to the question, he said he tries to stick to the Write What You Know dictum. "So what do I know? Gambling, Evangelical Christianity, and in this novel, a world in which humans are divided into two species. The big and the small, the powerful and the powerless, the great and the not so great, the haves and the have nots, those who oppress and those who are oppressed." That's a pretty good summary of what I was expecting from this novel--riffs on slavery, civil rights, class, poverty and the like--but Allen doesn't deliver the goods in even the most basic way.
The best thing Every Boy Should Have a Man has going for it is its strangeness, but unfortunately it's just not very good.
Out of 10: 7