Verdict: Although valuable and compelling for its portrait of child neglect softened by teen friendship, this promising debut novel would profit from stronger involvement of its likable, responsible adult characters.
New friendships help Tim survive a dismal year, beginning at age 13, when his alcoholic mother–who moves frequently to dodge overdue rent–uproots him two weeks before summer vacation. They end up at cheerless Sunshine Acres Mobile Home Park in a coastal Maine town, where the chilly beach waters are as unwelcoming as his new home.
AND THEN I MET ELVIS opens in 1969–a time when reporting child abuse and neglect was rare. Booze is plentiful in Tim’s home, but food is scarce. Even when Tim’s mom guilts him into walking with her to a convenience store because she fears blacking out, she only buys food for herself. Tim gets by on free lunch at school and purchases pizza for dinner with money earned by delivering newspapers and babysitting for the child of the beautiful 21 year-old Dorothy, who lives next door. Tim’s other “jobs” involve acting as a “remote control” to change television channels repeatedly for his mom, being on call at all hours to clean up her vomit, and quietly pretending to enjoy her drunken, eccentric renditions of Madame Butterfly arias, performed in “clown-white face make-up.” Tim’s mom is only one of the nightmares he faces daily. Another is verbal bullying and violent beatings by thuggish classmates whose acts mostly go unnoticed by adults. The ringleader is a pint-sized madman named Moosie, who even picks on little kids waiting for the school bus.
Tim stays sane through friendships with Dorothy, sometimes a perilous ally, and Vietnam veteran Steve, who runs the local pizza shop. One major disappointment about this debut novel is that it abandons Steve around two-thirds of the way into the story. He is one of a number of adults who Tim likes, but who never get to be more than a nice person for a kid in desperate need of adult intervention. What really lifts the gray cloud over Tim’s life is befriending a supersized latchkey teen who moves into the trailer park. Tim dubs Darrell “Elvis” for his swagger, heft, and dark hair slicked into “a classic 50s pompadour.” Elvis proves funny and formidable.
Although AND THEN I MET ELVIS focuses on middle schoolers, its dark ending and sexual content make it a better choice for older teens. Due to its depiction of the many problems child neglect can cause, it would be a useful addition to reading lists for college students entering social work.
~Alicia Rudnicki for IndieReader