It is not only expected but de rigueur in the cult of the North American suburban gothic that every SUV-driving, Levi’s-wearing mother secretly pops Adderall at her son’s soccer games or constantly downs Chardonnay to ease the pain of her husband’s extra-marital affair with his male coworker. Or something like that.
James Boice echoes an all-too-common fear of sameness and suburban alienation when he describes the citizens of his hometown of Little Rocky Run, Virginia: “And they went to the gym after work and met their friends for happy hour and slept with their friends with condoms and became married at age twenty-seven and purchased a home and ventured forth in procreation.” At first, it’s almost ironic that Boice’s portrait seems like nothing new: “They had no structure to their faces. Their bones morphed into one another. They spoke the same syllables on top of one another, and they were cast out in the middle where they tore the plastic off their new shirts and tossed them in the washer in the year 1998.” It’s an era of unprecedented wealth, cartoon sitcoms and sex scandals: in a word, the Clinton Era.
The dust jacket of “NoVA” (shorthand for Northern Virginia) reads like a recap of an episode of Desperate Housewives, promising to finally “scratch the shiny surface [of suburbia].” This topic may seem trite at worst and overworked at best, but Boice determinedly takes a stab at originality in examining the suicide of a seemingly-normal 17-year-old boy, and the context around that event, in excruciating detail.
Within the first five pages, Boice has already delivered something more gruesome than banal. Grayson Donald has hanged himself from a basketball hoop: “His lunch has already made its way through the intestine and colon and now takes the form of hot brown shit cooling in the sagging seat of his Hanes boxer briefs. A hard-on protrudes from the crotch of his cargo pants.” It is November 2, and he’s been swinging by his neck all day. From this sort of morbid fascination, Boice’s blunt, transparent prose and disjointed vignettes evolve into a meticulous, disarmingly honest scrutiny of Little Rocky Run that ultimately condemns suburbia, but redeems his novel.
Determined to elucidate Grayson’s motivation, Boice embarks on a series of character sketches that only vaguely cohere. These descriptions of the average American suburb initially read like an over-zealous attempt at a modern-day literary minimalism. In the first 50 pages, it seems that Boice might actually believe that a few vivid references to excrement and some well-placed expletives are enough to automatically lend his voice authenticity.
But as “NoVA” continues, Boice’s neutered but lewd prose adeptly fleshes out the characters that make up Little Rocky Run with striking explicitness. He describes the people in Grayson’s life—family, friends, teachers, neighbors, Best-Buy employees—with arresting honesty.
Vicki Donald, Grayson’s mother, is an avid pro-life Catholic who teaches high school Calculus. She is overweight and in her food-diary she writes, “I ask You to remind me when I crave a snack such as a ‘3 Musketeers’ to remember You on The Cross & how You had nothing to eat or drink.” She cooks frozen baked ziti for her family three times a week and hates her husband. Grayson’s father, John, was in the Army and is now an alcoholic and addicted to Internet porn. He’s on the Home Owner’s Association along with self-medicating middle-aged housewives who say things like; “’What’s cool about drugs and murder?[....]Sometimes what’s cool is actually doing the not-cool thing.” In approaching these tropes honestly, Boice holds them to a light that transcends cliché.
Grayson’s friends are obsessed with women, pot, music, Nintendo, and SAT-prep, and are constantly “teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown because their hemp necklace might be gay.” Boice deftly illustrates the psyche of the teenager of 1998: totally self-absorbed, yet cripplingly self-conscious.
Boice’s unapologetic bluntness renders these characters with startling realism. The archetypes of high school—the hot blond gym teacher who seems perpetually stoned, the “tool” who forgoes college to live at home and buy beer for high school parties with his mom’s credit card—morph into multi-dimensional personalities through his penetrating interior monologues. Through Boice’s rendering and Grayson’s eyes, they appear distinctly real yet disconnected from reality, each living in a microcosm of the delusion at work in “NoVA.”
The harsh objectivity Boice uses only thinly veils Grayson’s earnestness in trying to understand his community, with its initially imperceptible undercurrent of violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, and neglect. When rejecting his parents’ Catholicism, he writes, “Think about it, Mom. Manifest Destiny, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades. History is stained with the blood of tragic and ultimately silly endeavors of which yours is a microcosm.” Eventually, Grayson becomes more and more cognizant of the fallacies of the deluded members of Little Rocky Run. In the end, it’s his community that facilitates his suicide.
“NoVA” is another novel that criticizes the American Dream as a mind-numbing routine of frozen dinners, high school cafeterias, and TV reruns. Though Boice ultimately condemns Little Rocky Run, his novel succeeds not through his sensationalizing prose, but through his dark sense of humor, caustic perceptions, and compelling candor.