James Boice's second novel NoVA
opens with a high school boy committing suicide. The time and place are clinically presented: Tot Lot, Third Entrance. November 28, 1998. The boy's death is described in a clinical tone, but with long, sinuous sentences, as if the narrator doesn't know where to look. The narrator details the contents of the boy's stomach, counts up the number of kids named Brian in his town (10), and relates the musings of the fifteen-year-old girl who first spots the body hanging limply from a basketball hoop.
We learn quickly that the dead boy is merely a unifying device for a novel about a place. Northern Virginia (NoVa) is the realm of the mid-level bureaucrat in a government-related industry. NoVa is Patio Man land. Everywhere you look you'll see "lives being lived and nothing in the way." After we meet the one person whose life has reached the ultimate roadblock, Boice's prose loosens up, his gaze becomes steadier. We get a series of spot-on first-person narratives from people whose lives may look smooth and untroubled, but they're really just circling the cul-de-sac. There's a fabulously vulgar layabout who still lives with his parents, four years after graduating from high school. He has no prospects for employment, isn't serious about applying for college, hasn't a single social grace, and he doesn't care.
While Trent remains happily stuck in adolescence, Ellen tries to forget that she peaked in high school. She consoles herself with long baths, and her monologues range over the usual array of anxieties and disappointments of a mother of two hot tubbing her way into middle age. Trent, Ellen and the rest of the large cast of characters in NoVa all share the narcissism of the mediocre, but there's a distinct generational gap cutting across the novel. Boice's ventriloquism works better for the adolescent characters than the adults. The adolescents' attention is focused on the immediate and the tangible. They can only see the world through their own mundane desires, so their surroundings seem more provisional, still full of possibility, however modest. Ellen and the rest of the homeowning class fret about their souls and their places in their world. But because their world is so banal, they can't help but appear banal themselves.
Boice labors mightily to make the ordinary interesting, and for the most part he succeeds. His characters come alive through Boice's keen eye and mordant humor. Boice is particularly skilled at dropping a simple declarative sentence for a powerful effect. Trent's egocentrism infuses every sentence he utters, but no more than when he tells us just before he's about to drive off to the shopping mall, "I am well known for my car." Such is the world of NoVa that claims like this really matter.