Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks (Publication Date: March 1996)
In the tradition Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, Russell Banks’s quintessential novel of a disaffected homeless youth living on the edge of society “redefines the young modern anti-hero. . . . Rule of the Bone has its own culture and language, and Bone is sure to become a beloved character for generations” (San Francisco Chronicle). With a compelling, off-beat protagonist evocative of Holden Caulfield and Quentin Coldwater, and a narrative voice that masterfully and naturally captures the nuances of a modern vernacular, Banks’s haunting and powerful novel is an indisputable—and unforgettable—modern classic.
When we first meet him, Chappie is a punked-out teenager living with his mother and abusive stepfather in an upstate New York trailer park. During this time, he slips into drugs and petty crime. Rejected by his parents, out of school and in trouble with the police, he claims for himself a new identity as a permanent outsider; he gets a crossed-bones tattoo on his arm, and takes the name “Bone”.
He finds dangerous refuge with a group of biker-thieves, and then hides in the boarded-up summer house of a professor and his wife. He finally settles in an abandoned school bus with Rose, a child he rescues from a fast-talking pedophile. There Bone meets I-Man, an exiled Rastafarian, and together they begin a second adventure that takes the reader from Middle America to the ganja-growing mountains of Jamaica. It is an amazing journey of self-discovery through a world of magic, violence, betrayal and redemption.
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Um… holy cow! Where to begin? A friend recommended this book to me, warning that it’s a bit edgy and there are some cringe-y moments—however, this gritty subject matter only made the character more lifelike. So. Damn. Good.
Once I got hooked on the narrator’s voice, I couldn’t stop reading. I literally cancelled all my plans, stayed off social media, and didn’t watch any Netflix—don’t judge me. I had to know what happened to this kid. Russell captures the teenager personality, to an enviable degree—warts and all. There are times I wanted to strangle the narrator, and other times I cheered him on. We follow him through abuse, low self-esteem, self-medication, and violence, watching him learn from it all. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a character so messed up, yet so loveable at the same time. His innocence and self-reflection are endearing. And, the other characters in the book? So colorful and so distinct. By the end, I literally had tears in my eyes, thinking it’s over?
Is this a perfect novel? No, you can pick things apart. It takes some getting used to that there is minimal punctuation, long sentences, and no quotation marks for dialogue. But there’s a rhythm to the language. It worked for me. There are also some plot points where I was like: What? Really? They seemed almost too coincidental at times. Here’s the thing: I didn’t care. The twists and turns are so strange it reminded me that sometimes life can really be that crazy. Events and people do seem to fall out of the sky. And we don’t always know how we’re going to react. I was willing to buy it all: hook, line, and sinker.
I will definitely pick up more books from this author. His prose is hypnotic, and his characters captivating. And there is something literary about his observations, symbols, and metaphors. Russell doesn’t throw these in our face; instead, he lets us pick them out for ourselves as we tread through the pages. I highly recommend this read, especially if you enjoy a heart-felt coming of age story.