The Awakening by Brett McBean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”The day that was to change Toby’s life forever started out like any typical summer morning.”
We’ve all experienced that ball-peen hammer between the eyes that takes us off our feet and leaves us staring up at a blood red sky. We didn’t see the hammer coming. It comes from the shadows, like Poe’s Pendulum swinging on an arc designed to sweep right through us. Toby is just a kid on the verge of manhood. He has finished 8th grade and is looking forward to a summer of hanging out with his best friend, Frankie, watching horror movies, playing baseball games, and having deep philosophical discussions with a zombi (yes, I spelled it right. Have patience, grasshopper).
Wait? Zombis? Discussions?
Mr. Joseph likes to sit, looking out his front window, watching the kids walk to school. He is old. He is strange. So logically, he is a pervert. Belford, Ohio, is a small town, and we heard all about “small town values” when Sarah Palin was running for Vice-President. Those living in larger cities are considered caretakers of dens of inequity.
Boy, I wish. I always wanted to run a den of inequity.
I grew up in a very small town, so I know of what I speak. There are no higher values maintained in smaller towns. The same things happen in small towns as they do in big cities. Drug use, teen pregnancy, suicide, and murder happen per thousand just as frequently as in the cities. The difference is, with everyone knowing everyone, the crushing judgement for any misstep is almost more than many people can bear. Anyone with differences must conform or be castigated relentlessly. The Norman Rockwell small town probably exists somewhere, but I’ve never experienced it.
So Mr. Joseph freaks the kids out. Some of them throw rocks through his windows, behead chickens in his yard, and spray paint obscenities on his house. It doesn’t help that he is from Haiti, horribly scarred, and...black.
Toby and Frankie are just trying to navigate the social, shark infested waters of being a teenager. The transition from being the biggest kids in middle school to the smallest kids in high school is always treacherous. In my school, being caught in the open in front of a group of seniors might mean being thrown in the showers in the middle of the day, or experiencing the joys of a toilet swirl, or if you are lucky, just getting thumped around, emasculated, and embarrassed in some other fashion.
Ahh man... the memories.
There is always that guy, right? That guy with the Neanderthal brow, bloodshot pig eyes, mad at the world attitude, and looking for anyone weaker than himself to take out his frustrations on. In Belford, Ohio, that guy is Dwayne Marcos.
And Toby and Frankie can’t help but do something to inspire his ire.
Which leads to a tragic ass kicking.
Which leads to Toby and Mr. Joseph becoming friends.
Which leads to Toby discovering that Mr. Joseph is nice, but a whole lot more scary than what anyone could possibly comprehend. ”Mr. Joseph is a zombi. Yep, the real-deal, the living dead. Now, I know what you are thinking, but it’s not like in the movies. It’s kinda complex, but basically he’s what is known as a zombi savane, that means he was turned into a zombi, but sort of brought out of it, kind like he was brought out of trance.”
Wrapped around all these events is Toby’s burgeoning, gobsmacking, reciprocated love of glorious Gloria. The most bodacious girl in the whole 8th grade class. He is convinced at any moment she is going to come to her senses and see him for who he really is... the wimpy, insecure guy that he sees in the mirror every morning.
What Toby learns is that he can’t trust anyone. His parents are just as worried about fitting in as anyone else. That doesn’t make them racist like the rest of the town, but instead of standing up to prejudice they’d rather just sidestep the issue. They have real fear of the consequences of trying to stand up for what is right in this small town. Toby is finding out just how hard it is growing up. He discovers how disappointing adults can be, how garden variety meanness can turn into something much more insidious, and how the town monster can be the only true friend you’ve got.
There are certainly Ray Bradbury aspects at work in this story. The coming of age in the midst of terror that Bradbury was so good at. I looked forward to coming home every day and spending some time with Toby. I shared his frustrations, rooted for him, and hoped he’d find a way to continue to be himself and survive the small town prejudicial mentality. The day will come when Toby will lay a black streak of rubber on the highway on his way out of town and hopefully Gloria will be smiling at him from the passenger seat.
Meanwhile he has to figure out how to survive the summer before his freshman year.
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