Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review of Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Bray, Libba. Going Bovine. Delacorte, 2009. (out Sept. 22)

I hadn't read any of the many pre-publication reviews of this novel before I began, so my thoughts during the first few chapters ran along the lines of "ah, this is another of those smart-alecky books about a maladjusted, snarky, hard-up teen-aged twig-boy." But then I kept reading.

16-year-old Cameron starts having strange hallucinations and losing control of his body; soon he is diagnosed with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - mad cow disease - and in short order he has been admitted to the hospital. So is this a "teen problem novel?" Will there be heart-rending scenes of redemption and renewal?

Heck no, if for no other reason than Cameron himself, whose core of sarcastic irony is almost impenetrable. He is so committed to his misery that he can't be bothered to lift his little finger to do anything that might endanger it. So when a punk-rock girl angel with huge fluffy white wings appears to him at his hospital bed and exhorts him to save both himself and the world - while taking a hypochondriac teenage dwarf named Gonzo along with him as a sidekick - Cameron takes a bit of convincing before he agrees to the mission. But he does agree.

And he and Gonzo go on the strangest road trip ever. It's pointless to recount the plot, but I will say that a yard gnome (who is actually a Norse hero under a spell), a crazed happiness cult, some mad scientists, scary fire giants, New Orleans, Florida, drunken horny teens, and spring break all figure prominently - and that's only giving you a tiny fraction of the excitement. Everything is connected and the world is rife with weirdness. Think Repo Man and Buckaroo Banzai and The Big Lebowski and Holden Caulfield (but even more foul-mouthed and with a much better sense of humor) and yes, even Don Quixote, all rolled into one - and there are lots more allusions that I can't quite think of now.

The only episode that seemed both too over-the-top and too obvious in its satire was the CESSNAB cult, with its "everyone is special/think good thoughts" mantra. Otherwise, I was too busy laughing to care about any lack of subtlety. My college years may be more than two decades behind me, but this kind of dialogue brought me right back to my huge communal college house, filled with physics geeks, math weirdos, computer nerds, and one oddball female Philosophy/German Lit. major:

Cameron and Gonzo are having their first intense conversation, during which Gonzo has shared a difficult memory of his mother. Part of it involved burying a bunch of toy Fast Wheels in the backyard. Cameron, not knowing what to say, makes a lame joke.

"I know you hated your mom. Shit, I don't blame you. But what did those little toy cars ever do to you to deserve such a fate? Dude, that's harsh..."
"My friend," he says with a snort. "I am the Ayatollah of Harsh. Do not f**k with the little people. We will lay waste to your souls!"
"Oooh," I say. "Now you got me scared, dude. Terrified."
"I put a freakin' fatwa out on those cars." He's laughing so hard he sounds totally manic, but hey, whatever it takes to keep him up.
I put the pillow back behind my head. "Well, they didn't deserve to live. They were tools of the infidels."
"Goddamn right," he says, his voice less tight."

Stupid, right? And funny, and indicative of same major bonding going on. And if that kind of badinage doesn't appeal to you, then don't bother to read this book, because it's chock-full of this kind of nerdy/hip cleverness.

I don't want to give away the end - but I did have some major questions, the biggest being "What happened to Gonzo afterward?" Was the whole thing a dream/alternate reality kind of thing for him? Does he still have Drew's number? At the very least, I bet his relationship with his mom will change...

Good stuff. Recommended for ages 14 and up.

And check out the trailer -


  1. Okay, I have definitely been wondering about this one. Thanks for the review! I'm thinking Going Bovine has a little "love child of John Green and Rachel Cohn" thing going on, maybe? I do think Libba Bray is smart to go in a totally different direction after finishing the big Gemma Doyle trilogy. Gutsy AND smart!

  2. Heh - I like that! Yes, and there's a bit of John Barnes' Tales of the Madman Underground in there, too (although with a higher nerdly wackiness quotient).