Only when it’s too late do Brian and Flip realize that their search for the truth will change their friendship forever…
It’s a short novel about finding a dead body in the woods! It features a group of middle-school boys with dysfunctional home lives! It has a terrifying scene set on a railroad trestle! It contains several chapter-long vignettes that digress from the main plot! It concludes with the revelation of a shocking death!
No, you’re thinking of the OTHER finding-a-dead-body-in-the woods book. That’s next week. This one predates the publication of the more famous finding-a-dead-body-in-the-woods book by more than a decade and also throws Nazis into the mix.
The Plot: Is just as deeply unsettling as that murky cover promises.
Narrated by Brian Bishop, twelve-about-to-turn-thirteen, in an economically-declining town in an unnamed mid-western state, it opens in late spring, when he and his neighborhood friend, Philip (Flip) Townsend are starting to get good and bored with the way the school year is dragging on.
Flip, the son of a Navy Commander who is almost constantly deployed away from the land-locked town of Dunthorpe, has a disinterested mother and three younger sisters whom he is expected to keep track of; the more enterprising of the two boys, Flip has a constant stream of projects of his own invention, and goes on a local history kick when he learns that the rundown city park used to be an elaborate amusement park in the early 20th century, until it burnt to the ground in the 1920s.
Awed at the idea that their stupid boring town ever had anything as cool as an amusement park, the boys set out to do some amateur archaeological work, starting with diagramming the path of the roller coaster.
The boys have hardly started their project, when they stumble across the dead body, which has been freezing and thawing for the better part of the season.
An article in the Dunthorpe Morning Call reports on the finding of the corpse, which the Police Chief and Coroner have declared to be a vagrant, dead of “presumed natural causes”.
Two days later the Call publishes two letters to the editor, one from Miss Bernadette Dunthorpe of Dunthorpe Boulevard, Dunthorpe, taking the city officials to task for “the hordes of tramps and hobos allowed to roam at large within our city limits to trespass, steal and insult womanhood” and leave their corpses around for impressionable children to find; the second is from Flip, expressing annoyance that the got paper his and Brian’s ages wrong, the reporter’s apparent ignorance of the history of Dreamland Park as “Dunthorpe’s own Coney Island”, and giving credit to the boys’ parents for calling the police, when it Flip who had made the call.
The boys are school celebrities for the better part of the week, which Flip especially finds gratifying. Brian suffers from nightmares about the experience, as well as a mounting dread that Sunday will be his turn to take their joint, pre-dawn paper route. When Flip shows up to help a badly rattled Brian with the route, it cements a friendship that had been based on geography more than anything else up until this point.
But, as their Language Arts teacher likes to say, Fame Is Fleeting, and Flip remains dissatisfied with the outcome of their finding-a-dead-body-in-the-woods adventure. Briefly reviving his interest in photography, he suggests that they return to the woods and snap a few pictures, so they will at least have a remembrance of the event.
Pawning off their afternoon paper route on Elvan Helligrew, a classmate notable for announcing in front of his entire 5th grade class that he was going to a ‘Trim-Down Camp’ for the summer, and returning in the fall 12 pounds fatter, the boys set off into the woods to take their photos.
Brian notices that the run-down clubhouse for the tennis courts has had the front door jimmied open, and looking for any excuse to avoid the woods, gets Flip to investigate with him, and they immediately find evidence that something has been going on:
He squatted down in front of the giant roller they use to smooth level the clay courts. There was a thin crust of dried clay on the roller part. Somebody had carved a swastika on it, with a pocketknife, probably.
“It’s fresh,” Flip said. “Look, you can see the crumbs from the clay on the floor there. Somebody’s been carving on this recently.”
He nodded down at the floor. There on both sides of the roller, were candles stuck onto the floorboards in their own wax. They were burned almost down to nubs. Black candles. Talk about weird. We just stared at them for awhile. Then I muttered, “It’s almost like an altar.”
Flip is still insistent on getting his souvenir photos, and when they go back into the woods, they find another meticulously carved swastika on a piling for the long-burned roller coaster. Finally, as they walk out of the park, they find an elaborately decorated ceremonial Nazi knife in a leather sheath. Flip is keen to fold the Mysterious Nazi Altar into the “mystery” to solve, but when the boys arrive home they have bigger problems: dozens of angry customers who didn’t get their evening papers because Elvan was a no-show.
Flip confronts Elvan during lunch the next day, an encounter that leaves Brian deeply unsettled. Elvan is weird. Slow for his grade, and desperate to fit in, he has a masochistic attachment to Flip, delighting in the attention from him, even as Flip heaps abuse on him:
Along with everybody else, I heard Flip call him “an irresponsible fink.” And- here comes the bad part- Elvan was just nodding and saying, “I know it, Flip, old buddy, I know it. Whatever you call me is true, and I don’t have no excuse.” And with that sick grin on his face. Like a damn dog or something- a damn dog that hangs around waiting for you to kick it.
A few nights later, a spooked Flip calls over to Brian’s house, begging him to sneak out and meet him, but refusing to say why. Brian finds Flip locked in his room, utterly terrified. He thrusts the contact sheets from his last roll of film into Brian’s hands, and Brian can’t believe his eyes: in two of the shots in the woods, there appears to be a face lurking behind them.
The boys agree to pay to have the two shots professionally enlarged, and wait two days on pins and needles to get them back. When they do, both are furious when the face is easily identifiable as Elvan.
Flip plans an elaborate scheme to get back at Elvan, by luring him into a desolate tower in the run-down municipal art museum and scaring the crap out of him. But Flip quickly loses control of the situation:
Elvan ate it up to the last crumb, nodding to Flip to keep it going until I wanted to puke. At the end of it was, okay, if we can’t get rid of you, we might as well make up our minds to put up with you…
It had an overwhelming, double-barreled effect on Elvan- he enjoyed every bit of it. The humiliation, he expected. But the half-assed promise of buddyhood had him dancing about with joy.
A few weeks later, Elvan invites them over to his house, where Brian and Flip meet the smotheringly indulgent Mrs. Helligrew, who is even more pleased than her son to have the boys over. Elvan saves his big surprise for after a light snack of an entire chocolate cake and double chocolate malteds, leading them down to a locked basement room:
When the light went on, we were looking directly at a Nazi flag- full size- nailed up on the far wall of a little laundry room with no windows. On either side of the flag were Styrofoam heads- like those stands women buy to put wigs on when they’re not wearing them. And on those were German helmets from World War II- real storm trooper helmets. They looked like two cut off heads at a human sacrifice. Underneath it was one of those artificial wreaths that people leave at graves on Memorial Day. That was just the beginning, though…
It was like going back thirty years in time. On the wrong side.
I don’t know where 12 year olds bought Nazi shit before the internet (“I got most of this stuff with money I saved and trading with a few other collectors”), but Elvan has amassed an enormous collection, that even leaves Flip speechless. They decline his offer to try on the storm trooper helmets.
Making hasty excuses, they flee the Helligrew house, deciding that they want nothing more to do with Elvan… well, maybe. Flip thinks that he might have clues about the dead hobo mystery, but Brian talks him out of it, and they wrap up the Nazi knife and dump it in front of his locker on the last day of school.
But they can’t shake Elvan so easily. Later in the summer, Brian and Flip continue their local history kick, searching for the foundation of the cabin built by the county’s first settlers. But the day goes badly: first they accidentally disturb a sleeping puff adder, badly scaring Brian, and although the snake can’t harm them, Flip kills it, which deeply disturbs Brian.
Later, after a skinny dip in a creek that runs beneath an abandoned train trestle (which has an urban legend/cautionary take attached to it), the boys are alarmed to see a figure spying on them from the tracks above. Creeped out, Flip goes into a fury, grabbing the dead snake and climbing to the bluff above the tracks, intending to drop it onto the unsuspecting stranger. When they realize it is Elvan on the tracks below, Flip is even more enthusiastic about it, but Brian again stops him, arguing that it would be “totally senseless”. Later Brian will realize that this is the first sign of the rift in their friendship.
When school starts in September, the boys are assigned to different homerooms, although they still can’t shake Elvan- a few weeks after school starts, each of the boys receives a Nazi medal and note signed with a swastika in their desk, instructing them to meet at Dreamland Park. Brian is reluctant to go, but Flip thinks this will give them the chance to tell Elvan off once and for all and finally be rid of him.
At the park, Elvan makes a half-assed attempt at telling a story about having stabbed the hobo with his knife, but Flip calls B.S. and gives Elvan to the count of three to get lost. Elvan takes off running, and the boys briefly give chase, just to make sure that he keeps going. When Brian realizes what is about to happen, it is too late: terrified, Elvan runs across a long-condemned footbridge, crashes through the rotten planks and breaks his neck.
The book concludes with another letter to the editor from Miss Dunthorpe, again calling out the city for negligence.
Dividing the seasons of the story are two chapters telling mostly-unrelated stories: in the first, Brian recalls the summer after fifth grade, when Commander Townsend puts in a rare appearance at home, and is horrified to learn that his son can’t swim. Flip is able to bargain with his father into taking his neighbor, Brian, along for lessons at the YMCA. The summer turns out to be one of the best of their lives, thanks to their swimming instructor, Ralph, whom the boys come to idolize, imagining an ongoing epic of the many exciting adventures he must have off-hours. At the end of their last lesson, they are overcome when they realize they will never see their hero again, and Flip struggles come up with something meaningful to say to him. Unfortunately, what comes to him is an inquiry about pubic hair, which he asks in the shower, embarrassing Ralph, who makes a brusque departure.
The second takes place over the course of a 24-hour trucking run that Brian is finally allowed to go on with his father. Seemingly instructed to do so by his wife, Mr. Bishop awkwardly tries to talk to Brian about avoiding “trouble” with girls, even as the pretty waitress at his father’s favorite truck stop seems awfully familiar with him. Later that night, Brian has to help his father attend to a gruesome accident after a bunch of joy-riding hippies wreck their VW bus, killing all on board.
Sign It Was Written in 1970 Department:
The single-sex YMCA has no time for frivolous bathing suits:
You swam naked at the Y- regardless of age. And we were in our modest period- undressing close to the locker and taking our time about it. The Commander finally got tired of waiting for us and bounded off to the pool.