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The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

The Shadow Year (2008)

by Jeffrey Ford

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“Her small stature, dark, and wrinkled complexion, and the silken black strands at the corners of her upper lip made her seem to me at times like some ancient monkey king. When she’d fart while standing, she’d kick her left leg up in the back and say: ‘Shoot him in the pants. The Coat and vest are mine.’”

In “The Shadow Years” by Jeffrey Ford

The world-wide craze for superheroes is obvious. We all see ourselves as passive victims and don't expect to rescue ourselves.

There's also the national craze for vampires and zombies in books, TV, movies, and the web. It may seem odd that a deeply Christian country is also obsessed with vampires, but as Joseph Glanvill wrote in the 1600s, if you deny the existence of demons and witches, you deny god. I see it as another form of projection: a few survivors are surrounded by the dead, i.e., the masses of the unemployed and soon-to-be-unemployable. I’m thinking USA here.

Magical realism is a bit like SF, where colorful, fanciful personas, places and technologies are used to explore all too real attitudes, trends and prejudices. It could be said that Ford's take on it is America's second exploration of the genre, since it was also prevalent in the 50's and 60's (and to some extent the 70's) with the proliferation of pulp magazines, SF publications (also the birth of the modern comic book) and SF movies and TV shows (Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Star Trek). This post war boom was a symptom of America's unease with the new reality of The Bomb, Detente, the Cold War and the Red Menace.

It’s no coincidence that the resurgence of these Magical Realism genres occur at this time, when Americans again feel the ground shifting beneath their feet. American culture has always been hugely imaginative (it's not unique in that, of course) and I see no reason whatsoever why magic realism should be linked to a perceived decline in power.

Unfortunately, many English speakers don't seem to get the fact that magical realism started elsewhere a long time ago: Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Gogol, Bulgakov, Garcia Marquez -- one could go on and on. It's these writers who captured the absurdity of so-called reality and the truths revealed by the so-called magic. Ford, in my mind, is the best American representative of this kind of fiction.


1. Reality and fantasy today have changed places. Was the current Presidential election campaign reality, or fantasy? I'd argue that the campaign and our contemporary dilemmas (watching our "leaders" fiddle while Rome burns) is the latter. So it follows that “The Shadow Years” is addressing reality in the oblique, imaginative way that great art does;

2. Using the imagination is hardly a retreat. It's essential. It's our materialist, fact-centred world, suspicious of everything intangible, that is in full-blown retreat from true imaginative art (as opposed to the manipulative products of Hollywood). The American writer Kathleen Norris brilliantly examines what she calls Americans' fear of metaphor -- hence the rise of fundamentalist, literalist religion.

Ford is most of the time literary and beautiful, but this novel bummed me out. Downbeat and offbeat. Unfortunately I am not in the right phase of my life to love this stuff; but it does not prevent me from seeing what Ford was able to do.

Nevertheless, bring on more Beasts, please! ( )
  antao | Aug 3, 2017 |
A boy growing up in the a small Long Island town in the 1960s discovers that a serial killer is stalking his neighborhood.

This is a quirky coming-of-age story with a nostalgic small-town feel and an undercurrent of the sinister, as well as the supernatural. Ford is great with characters, especially the dysfunctional but still affectionate family of the unnamed narrator. The narrator has a hobby of writing little stories about his neighbors, and we get to know them and their eccentricities that way. He and his older brother have also recreated their neighborhood in their basement, a model made out of junk called Botch Town, where their odd younger sister moves the figures in a way that eerily predicts real-life events. The story is a mix of short vignettes about a pivotal year in the boy's life and the ongoing plot of the siblings' efforts to catch Mr. White, a creepy man in a white car who they suspect is murdering people. They have the help of an older neighborhood kid who moved away but mysteriously reappeared. Mixed in are nostalgic stories with a realistic edge: the horrors of middle school; dealing with an alcoholic, depressed mother; the antics of a Halloween night; an exuberant Christmas party; rambling through the nearby woods. There is an epilogue that feels tacked on and probably wasn't necessary, but otherwise this is a little gem of a book. ( )
1 vote sturlington | May 21, 2017 |
My Halloween pick for 2016. Ford creates a dark and menacing atmosphere all the while eliciting nostalgia for a small town childhood. I was captivated by this book. It is so well written. Great story! ( )
  cjservis | Oct 19, 2016 |
I can't believe how quickly I read this. I honestly expected three or four days of picking it up and putting it down when a bright distraction went by, but once I picked it up I'll be damned if anything other than an earthquake was going to interrupt. It's not as if it's a fast 'n' furious thriller. It's a slow, atmospheric tale of a strange year as seen from the point of view of a young boy in a small American town, which is practically a genre of its own. Every other Stephen King book, Ray Bradbury, Rober R McCammon's Boy's Life and the late great Graham Joyce's Tooth Fairy did one in England. What has to happen is that the young protagonist has to be in the cusp of leaving childhood behind and as the fog of innocence fades and the other fog of hormones rises to take its place, strange things emerge from the murk. Unreal, half-real, surreal. In The Shadow Year, it's a long white car driven by a man in a white coat. It's people dying and disappearing. It's the model town in the basement and the eerie correspondences between the little figures moved by little sister Mary and the people in the real town above. It's a hundred other things, some strange, some banal, and the whole year exerts a strange fascination over the reader and draws them in as the town reveals its secrets but somehow every secret seems to make it more strange and mysterious, a thing constructed from faded dreams and memories. Wonderful prose paints the place and the people and then tilts them all slightly askew. Compulsively readable. ( )
  Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
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For Jim, Mary, and Dool,
whose love was like a light
in the shadow years
First words
It began in the last days of August, when the leaves of the elm in the front yard had curled into crisp brown tubes and fallen away to litter the lawn.
Through the week I would smell a hint of machine oil here and there, on the cushions of the couch, on a towel in the bathroom, as if he were a ghost leaving vague traces of his presence.
I heard the big pages turn, the fork against the plate, a match being struck, and that's when it happened. There came from outside the house the shrill scream of a woman, so loud it tore the night open wide enough for the Shadow Year to slip out.
"What if he gets lost in there?" I said. ¶ "We'll just have everyone in town flush at the same time, and he'll ride the wave out into the sump behind the baseball field," said Jim.
School started on a day so hot it seemed stolen from the heart of summer.
He was a short guy with a sharp nose and a crew cut so flat you could land a helicopter on it.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061231525, Hardcover)

On New York's Long Island, in the unpredictable decade of the 1960s, a young boy spends much of his free time in the basement of his family's modest home, where he and his brother, Jim, have created Botch Town, a detailed cardboard replica of their community, complete with figurines representing friends and neighbors. Their little sister, Mary, smokes cigarettes, speaks in other voices, inhabits alternate personas . . . and, unbeknownst to her siblings, moves around the inanimate clay residents.

There is a strangeness in the air as disappearances, deaths, spectral sightings, and the arrival of a sinister man in a long white car mark this unforgettable shadow year. But strangest of all is the inescapable fact that all these troubling occurrences directly cor-respond to the changes little Mary has made to the miniature town in their basement.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:33 -0400)

In New York's Long Island, in the unpredictable decade of the 1960's, a young boy laments the approaching close of summer and the advent of sixth grade. Growing up in a household with an overworked father whom he rarely sees, an alcoholic mother who paints wonderful canvases that are never displayed, an older brother who serves as both tormentor and protector, and a younger sister who inhabits her own secret world, the boy takes his amusements where he can find them. Some of his free time is spent in the basement of the family's modest home, where he and his brother, Jim, have created Botch Town, a detailed cardboard replica of their community, complete with clay figurines representing friends and neighbors. And so the time passes with a not-always-reassuring sameness--until the night a prowler is reported stalking the neighborhood.--From publisher description.… (more)

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