To his family and teachers he was a nuisance; to his peers he was a target.
The Plot: So. That was weird.
Sometimes that is the only reaction I have when I get to the end of one of these. Kids escaping into the contemporary dystopia of 1970s New York City are a frequent plot device of YA books of the era (The Prince of Central Park might be the best known), but none I’ve encountered have as flowery a prose style as this one.
Orphaned 13-year old Aremis Slake has it pretty rough, as the author tells-instead-of-shows us:
Slake was useless to any gang. This was learned early in his life. Poor vision made him a clumsy thief, and a severe reaction to smoke and drugs made him a bad risk in other ways. On two occasions when he had been conned into taking pills, he had ended up in the hospital. He became a pariah. When not shunned entirely, he was hunted and hounded for sport.
A worthless lump, he was slapped up in the morning by a kind of an aunt. A worthless lump, he stood in front of the wheezing refrigerator, gnawing at what came to hand. He poured cold coffee into his worthless lump of a stomach and took his worthless lump of a body to school, passing on his stairway and in doorways, the lumps of other humans who had come to rest thus.
He is also haunted by a recurring dream in which he swallows a bird.
Slake has a healthy fear of the roving gangs that beat him up for fun, but it seems like an overreaction when he gets off the subway at Grand Central and sees a group of teenagers who aren’t even noticing him, and he runs not only back into the station, but down onto the tracks and into the tunnel of the downtown local IRT train (that would be the 6 in 2014-terms).
Slake doesn’t get hit by a train or electrocute himself on the third rail (SERIOUSLY, STAY OFF THE TRACKS, ALERT AN MTA EMPLOYEE TO GET YOUR DROPPED CELL PHONE!), and finds a hole in the side of the tunnel, leading to a hollow in the foundation of the Commodore Hotel.
While the cover copy promises to tell the story of how “Aremis Slake remained below ground for one hundred and twenty-one days!” that is not entirely accurate. Slake sets up camp in the foundation of the Commodore, but most of his adventures occur above ground. Ever resourceful, he soon finds that he can collect the newspapers abandoned on the trains and in the waiting room at Grand Central early in the morning and resell them to commuters on the subway platform, earning enough to buy a daily sandwich and bowl of soup at a nearby coffee shop. He soon becomes a familiar face around Grand Central, with a small coterie of regular customers who take care of him with an admirable balance of concern and minding-ones-own-business: some second-hand clothes from a cleaning lady, extra food on his plate from a waitress.
Interpolated between chapters are brief descriptions of the life of MTA motorman Willis Joe Whinny, who has harbored a life-long dream of herding sheep in Australia, but ends up operating the subway instead. For a while he is content in pretending that the train is a horse and the passengers are sheep, but then he starts really believing that the passengers are sheep and the idea of sheep-people depresses him and what if he isn’t the sheep herder, what if he just the lead sheep, and OMG, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING????
Slake is joined in his cave by rat. It is a deeply symbolic rat:
It was, indeed, a very thin rat- smaller by half than those he had seen running down alleys and in the littered back lots near his home. There was something limp and almost pathetic about this rat, and Slake thought it reminded him of something… but what?
If we were unclear on the conflict in this book it is BIRD vs. RAT.
By this time Slake has been hired to sweep up after the breakfast rush at the coffee shop, and is rewarded with all manner of hamburgers, doughnuts and pie to share with his rat-familiar. All things considered, life is pretty sweet for being a homeless 13-year old runaway!
However, disaster strikes in the form of 1974-New York’s crumbling infrastructure, when part of the subway tunnel outside his cave caves in. I guess Mayor Beame is going to have to find the money to fix the subway after all.
When construction reaches the entrance to his cave, Slake panics and blocks himself in, delirious with pneumonia (or maybe the ever-popular Symbolic Literary Brain Fever); with only his rat-familiar to watch over him, Slake spends the better part of a week having nightmares about his adversary, Stomach-Bird.
Finally, he awakens and stumbles onto the tracks, where he is saved from being run over by Willis Joe Whinny, whose faith in humanity is instantly restored with the realization that people are sheep in a good way. I guess?
Slake wakes up in an oxygen tent at Bellvue, where he is allowed to eat all the ice cream he wants and a concerned social worker says that he’ll be going to a “juvenile facility” as soon as he’s better.
However, after he has a dream in which he barfs up the evil bird in his stomach, Slake escapes from the hospital and heads back to the subway; however, when he sees Stomach-Bird perched on a nearby building he decides to live in the untended pigeon coops of the city’s rooftops instead. The end.
Sign It Was Written in 1974 Department:
Slake was well away in his cave, out of the way of civilization… out of the way of the moving mountains of boys who charged into the subway, loud and looming walls of flesh, crashing and echoing in the subway, high on wine or potent potions, coming, perhaps, to decorate the walls of subways with their spray cans, to write their messages and monuments to themselves.