Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings by Barry Gifford - A Review

Barry Gifford has strung together a set of vignettes and moments-in-time about Roy, a kid who lives in Chicago, at various points in Roy’s life – from when he’s about nine to when he’s nineteen, and everything in between. But it’s not chronological; Gifford has thrown the stories up in the air and the reader gets them as they’ve landed, presenting an interesting space-time discontinuum that provides perspective and dissonance, epiphany and revelation. Roy navigates the icy, windy backstreets of Chicago in the 1950’s like a modern-day Huck on the river. It’s almost always bleak winter, or end of autumn, or just before the spring—the weather is a palpable presence, and it’s not particularly friendly.

I think that thoughtful, introspective teenagers would find this book speaks to them; I know as an introspective adult, it really spoke to me. Of course, being from Chicago myself made it an extra special treat, but that’s not a requirement. Gifford’s Roy sees the world with calm and wondering eyes, very nearly innocent, which of course changes as he grows, but he’s very likeable and interesting. He has a weary mother and a pragmatic, wise grandfather, and lots of goofy friends who drag him into questionable activities. But we see Chicago as Roy sees it, with all its harsh city life, public school days angst, and a young man’s dreams, through a filter of curiosity and compassion that helps us read life itself more thoughtfully. 

This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review, February 2011.

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
Barry Gifford, Seven Stories Press (New York) 2010, 201 pp., pb, YA/Adult
ISBN: 978-1-58322-922-4

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