Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Uncivilized/Odod: E. Eero Johnson's The Outliers

Odod Books, the YA arm of Uncivilized Books, has been quietly releasing some very good, mostly genre-focused books for a few years now. Peter Wartman was their trail blazer and Kickliy's Musnet is their big seller, but E. Eero Johnson's Tsu & The Outliers represents something different. This book about monsters and outsiders is for an older child audience, and there's quite a bit of intense, even frightening, action. The blurb on the back notes that the book is an outgrowth of Johnson's "hopes and fears of raising an autistic child", and that's reflected in the book's protagonist, Tsu. Tsu is nonverbal and is bullied and mocked by his schoolmates. However, he is also able to communicate with a monster in the woods, a "bigfoot" who turns out to be his friend.

The bullying aspect of the book turns out to be a fairly minor part of this relatively slender (116 pages) volume. Instead, the meat of the book concerns Tsu dealing with a talking monkey scientist and his pet serpentine chupacabra. There are several long, clever chase and fight sequences that make up the bulk of the book, and the story's outcome is not what one would think. Indeed, it sparks the next possible volume in the series, where Tsu goes off with the scientist and the other "outliers"--creatures outside the norm. Tsu's friendship with the creature named T-Chok (the bigfoot who also looks like he's part ent) is a reflection of his ability to communicate in a way and with a portion of the world that's closed off to others. It's a reflection of how his own ability to communicate with other people is closed off as well, until the scientist does something to him.

Johnson doesn't hit Tsu's communication issues hard in terms of moralizing about it; instead, it's an important part of the actual narrative. He is forced to find better ways to communicate. He shrugs off abuse because though he might struggle in school, he is at home in the dense forest. There's an odd story structure here that keeps the reader off balance. It starts in the middle of an action scene and eschews conventional pacing and three-act structure. The book also defies the typical hero's journey and gives every character murky motivations. Is the scientist good or evil, or is that classification meaningless? Is Tsu a hero or simply someone in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is Tsu entering a dangerous world with unknown terrain, or is he finally traveling into territory where he can finally be understood? Johnson keeps this all delightfully vague and is aided by his dynamic, scratchy line. The professor jumps around like a Jack Kirby character and the action is larger-than-life in that Kirby style. The single-color wash serves to highlight the dense quality of the line rather than bleed over it, making it just one more slightly off-kilter thing about this odd, compelling book.

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