Book Review: Going Bovine

Book Review: Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Gotta love an author who promotes her book looking this this:

That trailer just cracks me up, and you can get a pretty good sense of just how wacky and weird Libba Bray’s literary creation is by watching her play ukulele in a cow suit.

So… Going Bovine. Big award winner. First published in 2009, it won the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award for young adult fiction. I wanted to love this book, and in parts, I really did.

Going Bovine is the story of Cameron, underachieving nobody shuffling through an underwhelming life: home life unremarkable, school no great shakes, and as for friends — well, they’re more like a group of misfits who tolerate each other because of their common loser/stoner status. Until one day things get weird, Cam starts having seizures and episodes, and ends up in the hospital diagnosed with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease — that’s mad cow disease to you and me.

Elements of the absurd abound. Cam is below notice in his school until his diagnosis; next day, his school is holding a pep rally in his honor, cheerleaders want to connect with him, and the school faculty seems to think brown and white ribbons (you know, a cow motif) are an appropriate way to show support.

Cam deteriorates rapidly as the out-of-control prions attack his brain, and is soon hospitalized with no hope of recovery. Or is he? In what is either the hallucinations of a slowly dying brain, a journey into a parallel universe, or the craziest buddy road-trip ever, Cam sets out across the South with Gonzo the neurotic dwarf, Dulcie the punk angel, and Balder, the Viking hero/yard gnome. Along the way, they’re chased by fire giants and the sinister United Snow Globe Wholesalers, making pitstops at CESSNAB (The Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack ‘N Bowl), the Daytona Beach Party House, and Putopia (Parallel Universe Travel Office … pia), en route to Disney World, site of Cameron’s happiest childhood memory and the endpoint of Cam’s quest to save the entire world from being sucked into a wormhole.

Libba Bray’s writing crackles with wit, has enough snark and social commentary to delight even the most cynical, and makes the story of a terminally ill teenager pretty fun to read. She sneaks in a lot of insidious little digs, such as the high school teacher prepping his class for the all-important State Prescribed Educational Worthiness standardized test:

Is Don Quixote mad or is it the world that embraces these ideals of the knight-errant that is actually mad? That’s the rhetorical question that Cervantes seems to be posing to us. But for our purposes, there is a right answer, and you need to know that answer when you take the SPEW test.

Or take the CESSNAB sanctuary, where people seek refuge from the harsh world in order to focus on being happy all the time. Everyone bowls a strike, everyone drinks vanilla smoothies, and when they get a hint of stress, they can go bowl some more or maybe buy stuff. As Cam explains:

I take a deep breath; in my head, I list five things I love about myself. “You know what, Gonzo? I want to help you find what I’ve found. Here, have a key chain,” I say, handing him one of the sunny yellow giveaways they hand out whenever you do something even remotely good, like remember to put the toilet seat down. Sometimes they give you a key chain just for showing up.

There’s a lot to love in this book, and ultimately Cam’s journey is both terribly touching and laugh-out-loud funny. And yet, I couldn’t maintain a steady interest throughout. I was completely engrossed for about the first third of the book, and then it just tapered off for me. The road trip elements seem to go on forever, and after a while, it was just all so over the top that it started seeming completely arbitrary. Lots of craziness, lots of hijinks, lots of bursts of insights into the meaning of it all — but as a whole, it was just all a bit too much.

It’s possible that someone in the target demographic for this book might find it profound in ways that I, as an adult, can’t quite get. Maybe I’m not at the right stage of life to fully appreciate all the quirky glories of Going Bovine. In the end, though, I can only assess the book in terms of my own experience, and unfortunately, I just didn’t connect to Going Bovine in the way that I’d hoped.

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