“New Veronia”, the debut novel from M. S. Coe, is a demented, other-dimensional parallel to “Of Mice and Men”, dipped in a boiling hot vat of skinhead blood, and then fried in whatever baby oil concoction Hulk Hogan uses to keep himself looking as young today as he did three decades ago. The main character, Bennet, is Lennie Small; stupid to a degree, lame, and frequently confused, but the reader does not realize this comparison until having spent a little time with him. And Jay, Bennet’s closest friend, is George Milton, an intelligent, but inherently evil kid who will undoubtedly grow up to be the next Grand Wizard of the KKK. “New Veronia”, at its most superficial core, is a coming-of-age story depicting the lives of a small band of high school students who do their best to traverse the labyrinthian maze of what they think everyone expects of them, which isn’t much because they’re teenage boys, and we all know what pulls the strings of a teenage boy’s strides and aspirations. Sex. Sex, sex, sex, without any sort of emotional attachment, no life-ending repercussions, no consequences to regret, nothing except the experience to notch off the list of things to do before one becomes a full-fledged adult, and of course, for popularity among the masses.
The mind of Bennet, our chief character in which the point of view of the story is told, is a multi-floored asylum in which the elevator has been rendered permanently out of service, and so we as readers are forced to take the stairs if we wish to see the big picture. We take each step alongside him, slowly at first, sometimes confused as to the reasoning behind some of his decisions, sometimes screaming at him to stop and to go back. But what a view it is once we reach the top. From here, we see all the pieces of the puzzle come together, all the jagged, razor-sharp edges of the pages lining up until all the cracks are sealed, all the light is kicked out and all we have left is blinding, horrifying darkness. We witness the roles of villain and hero reversed with such painful, agonizing vigor that at times we cannot read on, no matter how close to the end we have reached. But we read on anyway. The sights compel us. And the inevitable tragedy of adolescence is told in a way that none before it has ever done.
I have to admit, the only reason I picked up a copy of “New Veronia” is because the cover caught my eye. I’ve never really done that with books, only wine. I’ve never considered myself a wine snob and I generally only buy bottles of wine if the label is appealing to my eyes, gets me excited and makes me wonder about the drunken nonsense that the liquid inside its glass prison will unleash upon consuming. That’s how I felt when I saw the cover of “New Veronia”, feelings amplified to a set-in-stone demeanor once I read the author’s synopsis. I quickly “added to cart” and waited excitedly for a new read, and hopefully not a total fail of a story. I’d been let down so many times in the past with reading new books from new authors that I’d sort of begun to lose hope. When the book arrived, I started reading right away. At first, the story felt familiar, with hard and opaque comparisons to movies like “The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys”, one of my favorites, and a strangely gender-role-reversed “Now and Then” with more focus on the psychosis that comes with following the herd than figuring out one’s individual self. I read comfortably, thinking to myself this will be a good book, but nothing special, nothing to piss my pants over. That changed of course, when I realized this wasn’t just a story about a small group of friends desperate to lose their virginities during their high school years. There is so much depth that I did not see at first, that I realized during the latter half of the book, smashing me in the face with hammers and bricks and the front ends of large dump trucks. Without spoiling anything, during the second half of the book while Bennet and Jay are “on the run”, I felt a foreboding horror that something horrible was coming their way, and perhaps my way as well. With the drastic change of their environment, the decay of the land they traversed was mirrored in the mind of Bennet’s and Jay’s, a change neither one of them probably saw coming. One scene in particular I appreciated, was one in which they are hiding out in a treehouse in some random person’s backyard. It’s here that Bennet comes to terms with something very opposite of what a boy of his age should be thinking about, and the fact that it all happens inside a treehouse, a staple, an icon of perpetual youth, makes that realization all the more painful and breathtaking. The two of them started the book off as awkward best friends, Bennet worshipping Jay like a god, because “Jay always has a plan, always knows what to do”. But as the pages turn and we draw closer to the story’s climax, the development of their characters reaches a cliff in which neither one of them are prepared to leap from, except maybe Bennet. Bennet, the Lennie Small of this universe, has brought to fruition a very different, and much darker dénouement than Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”.
As the debut novel from author M. S. Coe, this was a hurricane of a breath of fresh air. I hope she writes more.
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