Victor “Vic” Benucci III is a victim of Moebius syndrome, a congenital neurological condition that manifests itself in facial paralysis. He can’t smile. He can’t frown. He can’t close his eyes. He can drink from a cup only with great difficulty. He drools. Behind that unmoving face is a bright, witty 16-year-old whose iPod has the Rose Duet from Richard Stauss’s Der Rosenkavalier set on repeat, and whose room is decorated with Matisse reproductions. For the first 14 years of Vic’s life his informal, cultivated, “heart-thinking” father has encouraged him to ignore the kids who bully him and the adults who assume he is mentally retarded. But as the book opens, his father is present only in the urn of ashes that has sat on the hall table for two years, and Frank the Boyfriend, a lawyer with two bullying sons, has proposed to Vic’s mom a few minutes after mentioning that “The Brothers Karamazov” is one of Tolstoy’s most famous works. Disgusted and horrified, Vic grabs his backpack and the urn and runs out into the winter night.
As he wanders around Hackensack, NJ, he meets a group of kids he vaguely recalls seeing before: the brothers Baz and Zuz, two refugees from the Congo with a questionable past; Coco, a tough-talking 11-year-old orphan; and – most notably and beautifully – Mad, with whom Vic instantly falls in love. Seeing his plight, they adopt him and take him “home” – an abandoned but heated greenhouse where they camp. Offering him a friendship he has never experienced before, they read the mysterious note in which Vic’s father has listed the places in which he wanted his ashes to be scattered, and they join Vic in finding those spots. Soon Vic realizes that all the venues have to do with the love between his father and mother. He also comes to realize that Mad has had to leave her grandmother, who is in the middle stages of dementia, because her violently abusive uncle has made it impossible for her to live at home. As the group surrounds and supports Mad and Vic, the situation spins out of control – and their story is interlaced with Mad’s and Vic’s interrogation by the Hackensack police.
This is a deftly-written book. We encounter the alternating narrators, Vic and Mad, in two time frames: the police interrogations, in which they frustrate their basically sympathetic questioners by unaccountably reminding themselves to stall for time but not to lie, and the previous 10 days during which they meet, solve the mysteries surrounding Vic’s father’s ashes, fall in love, and confront Mad’s violently drunk uncle. The result is suspense that Arnold keeps under delicate control without losing sight either of the kids’ mistakes or of the system’s inability to solve their problems. The story is compassionate, infallibly witty, and all too well aware of the ease of stereotyping a boy with an unmoving face as retarded or assuming that two middle-class Congolese boys must be “jungle people.” Quietly, unobtrusively, the book asks for tolerance and demonstrates the immense strength implicit in friendship that begins with three simple interchanges: “Do you need help?” “Yes.” “Have you hurt anybody?” “No.” “Then come with us.”
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.