By: Jesse Miller
Black Swan Green
[Random House, 2007]
If life is a journey then Citrus County is about the part of the trail somewhere between the neighborhoods of childhood and adulthood, which just happens to be Florida, where you end up mired in the muck of a worthless swamp and everywhere around you is more swamp. “You don’t always get to choose where you are. Toby sure as hell didn’t.” The same could be said of all the characters in Citrus County, a story that meditates upon what it means to be stuck in a horrible town at a confusing age with a bunch of other people who didn’t choose to be there. John Brandon is a master surveyor of this treacherous region, and in telling the story of his young protagonists Toby and Shelby, he explores the nooks and crannies that lie in “the time between now and then,” which is precisely where his characters have found themselves wedged.
Perhaps feeling like you’re stuck in the middle is universal for teens; like Brandon’s Citrus County, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell takes as its subject a young boy and the sentiment of displacement that accompanies growing up in a small town. In this case, that boy is Jason Taylor, an outwardly reticent thirteen year old aspiring poet with a debilitating stammer, and the town is Black Swan Green, located somewhere “in the most boring county” in England where, despite its name, there’s not a swan to be seen.
In addressing the process of “coming of age,” Brandon and Mitchell highlight the ways in which we become our selves, navigate relationships, and live in the world. To say that it is not easy to be a young teen is perhaps a truism coming from someone freshly out of that terrain with a fair share of personal mythology to remember it by. To say that it is easier (and far more enjoyable) to relive it through the lives of these characters is a fact. But here the act of reading as reliving is not merely an indulgence in nostalgia from the safe distance on this side of the page. These two novels will likely resonate with young adults for whom these issues are fresh (and if they are young adults and reading these books by choice, then these issues are). But by examining the ways in which Brandon and Mitchell represent their characters’ inner lives and outer struggles to come to terms with a world they suddenly must navigate on their own, I find myself looking at my own life, at the scripts I live by and the me I’ve become, hoping they will find the answers I never did and still haven’t.
Like all good teens, Toby and Shelby are alienated from their peers and restless in their skin. Toby is an eighth grader who spends his afternoons in detention and has no parental figure save his mostly absent, sometimes abusive uncle, while Shelby, still recovering from the recent death of her mother, is too smart to fit in at school and too self-aware to be content with the rut her life has rolled into. These young protagonists are placed in relief against a backdrop of grotesque archetypes of suburban America; the churchgoers and the storeowners and the woman haggling for sales at the convenience store serve to accentuate the background Toby and Shelby fear becoming lost within. And yet, to become part of the familiar mass has its comforts too.
Citrus County focuses in on the feelings of falseness that accompany these characters’ newfound awareness as social beings, of often having to act in ways that are counter to how they feel. At the beginning of book Toby commits an audacious kidnapping, a desperate attempt to catapult himself out of his life and out of Citrus County. Then he changes track and we see him trying to be “a shade of gray, like the rest” so that he can be “happy, like the rest.” And yet they never find true happiness in their attempts to blend in. As Toby and Shelby try on and discard different personalities, that dissonance is always present; he’s a bad boy who pretends to be good, she’s a good girl who tries to be bad. The two would read like stereotypes if it weren’t for the fact that they are constantly self-aware of the roles they are playing, that they’re playing roles. During Toby’s efforts to assimilate with his peers, he is coolly distant when he thinks about having a girlfriend and trying out for the track team, an actor rather than just another kid fitting into the stereotype of a middle schooler. How like really being a teenager this is, simultaneously trying to be an individual and to be like everyone else, to fit into the mold of caricatures and to break out of them. But by the end of Citrus County neither Toby nor Shelby finds a really satisfying way out of this predicament, and they leave the reader without a clue as to how to balance these two aspects of personality.
Luckily for me, Black Swan Green seems better suited to provide some answers, peppered as it is with pithy aphorisms that Jason shares with the reader, lessons he’s learned in his attempts to navigate his relationships with family, friends, and females. For example, with respect to family he instructs, “You and your mum need to like each other. Not love, but like,” and in reference to fitting in with his peers, “It’s all ranks, being a boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just ‘Swinyard,’ he’d kick my face in. Or if I called Moron ‘Dean’ in front of everyone, it’d damage my own standing. So you’ve got to watch out.”
But he hasn’t figured out the rules for everything. Though you have to watch out with boys, at least Jason seems to understand the rules governing their actions. Girls however, are another story. “Boys are bastards, but they’re predictable bastards. You never know what girls’re thinking. Girls’re from another planet.” The presence of this new kind of relationship that two people can have is alien and frightening at the same time that it is fascinating and desirable. In one amazing scene, Dawn Madden, a girl Jason has a crush on from school, calls him to her as if he was a dog and then feeds him a Danish off of the tip of a homemade spear:
Dawn Madden ate too. I saw the cud pulp on her tongue. Closer now, on her crucifix I saw a skinny Jesus. Jesus’d be warmed by her body. Lucky guy. Pretty soon the Danish was all gone. Delicately, she spiked the cherry on the tip of her arrow. Delicately I lifted it off with my teeth.
The sun went in.
“Taylor!” Dawn Madden peered at her arrow’s tip. Her voice went furious. “You stole my cherry!”
It stuck in my throat. “You…gave it to me.”
“You stole my fucking cherry and now you’ve got to pay for it!”
“Since when’ve you been allowed to call me Dawn?”
The same game, a different game, or no game?
This conversation does not simply show Jason’s struggles to work out the complexities of the female mind; his final question highlights his reliance on unspoken rules to guide his interactions, and the fact that dealing with Dawn is like playing a game in which only the other player knows what’s going on. He’s left in the dark. And the worst part about all of this is that there seems to be nobody to turn to for answers.
I don’t know whether or not I know the facts of life. You can’t ask adults ‘cause you can’t ask adults. You can’t ask kids ‘cause it’d be all round school by first break. So either everybody knows everything but nobody’s saying anything, or else nobody knows anything and girlfriends just sort of…happen.
Jason’s anxieties about girls connect here to his broader anxieties about what one is supposed to do and how one should act. And perhaps the only thing more frightening then not having the rules, is the prospect that nobody does, that there’s no such thing. Despite his initial faith in orderliness, that there are right answers to the questions that riddle him if only he could find them, his world crumbles around him as he plummets in social standing at school and watches his parents’ marriage dissolve at home. And so it is no surprise that he needs an escape.
“Trees’re always a relief, after people,” Jason states. For him, the woods, frozen lakes and hidden paths of Black Swan Green are a refuge from the problems at home and the rank and file world of his peers. Away from everyone, he doesn’t need to worry about his social status or his stammer. It is in the woods where he can find himself.
Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days, ‘cept for when we’re writing a poem, or occasionally in a mirror, or just before sleep. But he comes out in the woods.
In fact, in both novels the woods operate as a site of escape from society writ-small in the intense social stratification of middle school. As in many fairytales and Shakespeare’s comedies, the woods of Citrus County and Black Swan Green are where the characters can retreat to, escaping from society and from the life they are comfortable with and accustomed to, and later return from having learnt something about themselves and the world in the process. But what exactly is it that they learn?
It is the woods and swamps, the untamed areas that seem to encroach on the suburban wasteland of Citrus County where Toby brings his young hostage at the beginning of the novel, and it is to the woods that he continually returns to work out his crisis of identity. It is in the woods that Jason has his first broken promise, his first cigarette, his first glimpse of sex, his first encounter with social injustice. Growing up means experiencing firsts, so it’s no surprise that Black Swan Green is littered with them: first shave, first brush with death, first kiss. “My cousin Hugo reckons he’s kissed thirty girls (and not only kissed) and he’s probably up to fifty by now, but you can only have one first one.”
To read these novels is to share in this novelty, to relive the world with an eye for the weight of what is new and strange and exciting. I’m tempted to say these novels are Romantic, not just because they contain aspects of love stories (they’re about teens, it’s inevitable), but in the other sense of the word, the Romanticism of Shelley and Byron and Keats and Wordsworth, in the way that the inner life of the characters is expressed through the environment in which they live. In the scene from Black Swan Green quoted earlier, the sun goes away the moment Dawn Madden’s mood shifts from flirty to dangerous. Brandon’s Citrus County, filled with swamps and strip malls and cracked roads that nobody bothers to fix because nobody in their right mind would bother to visit the place, serves as metaphor for where Toby and Shelby are in their lives, for what it’s like to be a teen. It doesn’t go too far, songbirds don’t sing when Toby and Shelby are in love, but during one conversation between the two of them, thunder rumbles in the distance and it is rightly foreboding of what is to come and also indicative of the spark of electricity of love and lust and unfathomable teenage want.
There’s a certain interpretive freedom that accompanies them into this fuzzy region between inner and outer, self and world. The ways the male characters describe their interactions with girls is an interesting example of this. In both novels, for the young male protagonists, dealing with girls comes up as one of the most obviously dark spots on a shady map; they are often forced to map these unfamiliar feelings into a dialect they can comprehend. For example, “Toby tried to keep his eyes from darting to Shelby’s chest. He felt sick. He felt like he might throw up and he never felt like that.” Here Toby turns to the language of intense physical discomfort to express feelings he has no precedent for describing. Similarly, Jason, accidentally stumbling across two older kids having sex, describes how the girl “wrapped her legs round him, froggily” and “made a noise like a tortured moomintroll,” his description rendering sex freakish, a transformation from human to beast, the only way he can understand it.
And while there is a certain power that comes along with experiencing the newness of the world, of discovery and creation, there is also the opposing reminder that the world will continue, with or without you. Sometimes it doesn’t rain when you’re sad, sometimes the characters find themselves out of sync with their environment, as in this scene from Citrus County:
She opened the gate of the fence her father had built and stood in the middle of the road. The clouds were too close, the trees too green and intent, the dust from the road insidious, the air full of mildew, the calls from the crickets and frogs exuberant. Shelby stood amid all that, the sun baking the top of her head with what Shelby was expected to believe was disinterest, not intending harm or help, the sun, like it would do to anyone who happened to be standing where Shelby was standing.
The world cares, the world doesn’t; there are right choices and wrong; there are answers and there are none. What have I learned? The world is confusing, people are confusing and growing up is about figuring out who you are in relation to the people around you and the world you inhabit. And it’s not easy. Unlike On The Road, which only truly makes sense to those who have not yet learned to drive, these two novels remind those already at the wheel to look down at the map and make sure they’re headed where they want to be going. Life doesn’t provide answers, just more questions; the characters don’t come out with answers and neither do we. But there is still much to be gained in watching the them map out their unfamiliar world. Perhaps some words of wisdom from Jason Taylor: “The world never stops unmaking what the world never stops making. But who says the world has to make sense?”