Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

3 01 2012

Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .
In the summer before Cullen’s senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone’s eating “Lazarus burgers.” But as absurd as the town’s carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.
While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.
Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It’s about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.

So I’ll start this review by saying that the book has been getting a lot of buzz. It recieved a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly ; the book was nominated for a William C. Morris Debut Award; the author was named a 20 Under 30 author by NPR; and the author was a Flying Start Author (again from PW ). I’m sure there have been more reviews/buzz/etc, but those are the ones I can think of off of the top of my mind. Award books usually make me interested, not only because of the connotation that surrounds them that they’re “good”, but because I always wonder: was this book good enough to deserve an award?

In the case of Where Things Come Back , I’m not quite sure.

The story is about Cullen Witter, a seventeen-year-old boy who lives in the small town of Lily, Arkansaw. He dreams of getting out of town and becoming someone better. He idolizes his brother, Gabriel, who everyone seems to enjoy and like. Gabriel goes missing one night, and Cullen’s life is thrown into a tailspin. After Gabriel disappears, a long-forgotten woodpecker is discovered. The town explodes in media frenzy and bird watchers, with woodpecker hamburgers and hotels. The story is interpersed with a third-person narrative of Benton Sage, a former missionary. Benton attempted to go to Ethiopia as a missionary but found the mission hard and left, much to the chagrain of his church (who then said he could no longer attend any missions and that he was no longer accepted in the church). Benton, defeated, goes to college. Lost in religious questions, Benton kills himself and his roomate discovers his diary.

The characters were…okay. I don’t really particularly care for any of them. Cullen was a nice kid, a typical teenage boy with relatable feelings towards girls, his family, and his friends. The book titles he wrote were creative and about the only thing I really remember. His narrative was hard to read at times. He would start to refer to himself in third person and tell (tell, not show) what happened in scenes. This left me feeling pretty detached and confused. His two particular love interests were pretty good, though I’ll admit when the first love interest returns mid-way through the book I had completely forgotten about her. Cullen’s best friend Lucas was nice, funny, and smart, as was his girlfriend Mena. Gabriel was the same. Corey Whaley actually was pretty smart and made the parents prevelent and their reactions to the story well done. It was hard to relate to Benton Sage and his roomate, as they were both pretty screwed up. Reading about them was almost scary. But I felt pretty detached from the story.

The plot was better. Gabriel’s missing case was well developed, and I could really feel for Lucas and his family’s predicament. The woodpecker aspect made for funny and interesting reading as well as bringing up a lot of questions. I did figure out what would happen with the woodpecker plot pretty early on; that part of the story is a bit predictable if interesting. I was confused with Benton Sage’s story for a while but it makes sense in the end. Corey Whaley ties things together in a very nice ending.

Corey Whaley’s writing though, is very fluid, and he shows a teenage boy’s mind well.

I was left, though, kind of feeling confused. Award books are known for really affecting people, whether it makes them sad, happy, angry, or something else. The book was essentially interesting and confusing. I wondered if the reason this book had so many buzz was it confused people.

Maybe that’s it.

I did like the story, I did like the characters, and the setting and all that, and it was a nice story even if nothing really pops out at me right away. It was a nice story, pretty nice, pretty sweet. But I left feeling so confused and saying that was kind of weird. . And I think that might have been Corey Whaley’s intention, to confuse the reader, to make them feel uncertain with the characters and the story.

And he did a splendid job of it.

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