Book Review: Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley


Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

During the last month of Cullen Witter’s junior year, his junkie cousin overdoses. That is the most normal thing that happens to Cullen during the summer before his senior year. The Lazarus Woodpecker, thought to be extinct, is spotted in the woods causing the residents of his little town to go woodpecker crazy. He starts dating the girl of his dreams. But biggest thing of all, Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel disappears. In order to survive, Cullen must empty his pockets and look under the couch for any hope he can muster, anything that will keep him afloat while he waits to find out if his brother is dead or not.

This is a weird little book. And when I say weird, I mean it in a good way.

It is a book about taking chaos and trying to string it into order. A book about random coincidences glued to random personal meanings and then presented as a version of reality.

I also mean that in a good way.

Oh, I wasn’t sure at first. At first it seemed like an entertaining if not wholly remarkable narrative from the perspective of a slightly nerdy seventeen-year old boy who doesn’t quite fit any of the convenient pigeon holes. But very soon the book becomes so much more.

Everybody in Lily seems a little damaged, from Cullen’s aunt to the pretty Alma Ember who managed to be both a college drop out and a divorcée at the tender age of nineteen. Perhaps one of the most damaged and most empathetic characters is Cullen’s best friend Lucas Cader, who tries very hard to fill the hole in his life left by the death of his own brother.  No wonder when the Lazarus bird shows up it is seen as proof that everybody can have a second chance just like the woodpecker’s namesake, old Lazarus himself. The frenzied, manic hope of the townspeople is in direct contrast to the Witters, who are islanded in their anxiety and fear for their son and brother Gabriel.

Cullen’s story is punctuated by the story of Benton Sage, a failed missionary to Africa and then by his roommate Cabot Searcy. It isn’t clear until the very end where the two stories will intersect but when they do, I found it very hard to breathe. The escalating tension, the madness, the hope, the fragile broken-ness of everyone made the climax avalanche toward the denouement. I am not surprised this book one both the Michael Printz award and the William C. Morris award. It is wholly original, thought-provoking, heart-breaking and hopeful at the same time.

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