GOING BOVINE, Libba Bray’s surprising and unconventional new novel, is one of those books that seems impossible to explain. Doing so, however, is my job, so here it goes. Cameron Smith is the kind of kid you probably never noticed during high school (unless you, like him, were lighting up joints in the school bathroom). He is scraping by in his classes, not interested in college, and suffers from constant and disappointing comparisons to his perky, preppy twin sister Jenna. Basically, Cameron is on a slow but uncontrollable skid to nowhere.
That is, until his recent bouts of uncontrolled behavior and terrifying visions are revealed to be caused not by drug use (as his parents suspect) but by Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s, better known as mad cow disease. Basically, the tissue in his brain is breaking down, turning into a spongy mess (and apparently also letting in armor-clad wizards and threatening pillars of flame). Pretty soon, Cameron is finding himself poked and prodded, stuffed into hospital beds and down MRI tubes, with a terminal diagnosis and the horrible realization that he might be about to die without ever having lived.
Guided only by cryptic clues from an elusive (and strangely attractive) punk rock angel named Dulcie and accompanied by a hypochondriac dwarf named Gonzo, Cameron sets off on a road trip/wild goose chase to find the enigmatic Dr. X, a physicist who disappeared as if into thin air years ago. According to Dulcie, Dr. X holds both the potential to destroy the entire world and the ability to cure Cameron’s disease. Joined along the way by a (nearly) indestructible talking yard gnome who might be the incarnation of the Norse god Balder, aided by drunken frat boys and a Portuguese warbler and a visionary jazz man, Cameron’s trip culminates in what might be the world’s wackiest spring break. By turns hilarious and tragic, GOING BOVINE above all will keep readers guessing, as they must unravel what is real, what is a dream, and whether any of that really matters.
Up until now, Libba Bray has been best known as the author of the Victorian supernatural romance trilogy started with A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY. She is certainly in no danger of being typecast with her follow-up to those books, however; here she’s channeling Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut rather than Charlotte Brontë. GOING BOVINE is simultaneously perplexing and absorbing, the kind of novel that will have readers laughing in delight, not only at Balder’s one-liners but also at the kinds of absurd, amazing, seemingly random connections that tie everything together. Physics, philosophy and fantasy collide on Cameron’s journey, a road trip whose destination is both inevitable and somehow unexpected. The ending is sobering and entirely satisfactory, and challenges not only assumptions about narrative structure and voice but also larger questions about life, death and everything in between. GOING BOVINE is both hopeful and hilarious, the kind of novel in which hope, hilarity and wonder drive side by side.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011
- Publication Date: September 22, 2009
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 496 pages
- Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
- ISBN-10: 0385733976
- ISBN-13: 9780385733977