Boo, by Neil Smith, (Vintage), 320 pages, release date 12 May, 2015
Neil Smith’s Boo is one of those novels that I feel compelled to read based on the premise alone. Sometimes, such novels fizzle because the premise was as good as things got. Other times those novels use the premise as a launching pad for delightful, unexpected writing that leaves one thinking, “I could read that again.” Boo most definitely falls into the second category.
Here’s that premise in a nutshell: Oliver (Boo) and Johnny meet up in the afterlife having been killed by the same school shooter. Johnny is determined to find their killer and re-death him. Boo is more ambivalent, but joins the search.
The boys are in heaven—or what passes for heaven in this novel. Heaven is, one infers, highly compartmentalized. There are separate heavens for each nation and for each age group, so Boo and Johnny are in the U.S. thirteen-year olds’ heaven. They get fifty years there, then they disappear. Completely disappear? Move on to a new heaven? Are reincarnated? No one knows. This heaven is run by the self-selected “do-gooders” (yes, they’re thirteen-year-olds as well), who monitor day-to-day life and greet the newly dead upon arrival.
The god that runs this heaven is certainly quixotic. “Shipments” of food and other necessities materialize regularly in warehouses. The food is mostly healthy and all vegetarian. Ordinary objects like blankets and pillows appear. Stranger objects appear as well and are put on display in Curios, the museum in this heaven. These objects include items like Susan B. Anthony dollars, an old rotary phone, and back issues of magazines. Boo works in Curios, and when a gun materializes he keeps it for himself.
Smith makes this heaven believable despite its apparent illogic, and the reader is quickly engaged following the stories of these youngsters, each of whom is spending fifty years at age thirteen. They’re normal thirteen-year-olds—hot tempered, quick to judge, easily frustrated—but they are all (more or less) trying to do the best they can. There are self-help groups for those who died by violence. There’s a sort of sanatorium for “sadcons,” the sad and confused who are having difficulty adjusting to the afterlife.
This is a book well worth reading both for the world it creates and for the tale of Boo and Johnny’s particular journey. You’ll leave it with the satisfaction a good novel provides. You’ll also have plenty of larger questions to mull over because of the ways Boo gets you thinking.