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    an historic dystopia

    “Another angle that must be considered is the science of luck,” says Henry Phipps’ father. Deeply in debt, sick and weary, the War of 1812 on their heels, Henry is determined to help his family’s luck to turn. Nick Arvin’s latest novel (due out today), Mad Boy is Henry Phipps’ rousing adventure through Washington area battlefields, to save his family - and himself from it. Henry Phipps’ mother is dead. His father is in debtor’s prison. His brother Franklin might be hanged for deserting his regiment in order to visit his girlfriend, Mary, whom he accidently impregnated. Henry’s wild search to keep his promise to do his dead mother’s bidding -- to keep the family together at any cost -- is as crazy as her voice in his head. Henry is called mad because he hears his mother speak through death. Although the story is mainly his, it includes his mother’s perspective, as well as his brother Franklin’s, the Radnor the slave’s, and that of the acquaintances Henry meets along his way. These conflicting and well delineated perspectives raise the question of whether Henry is mad, or the world in which he dwells. Is it mad for Franklin leave the family to go to war when his father is a drunkard and a gambler? Is it mad to loot when the economy has collapsed, as does Morley, one of Henry’s acquaintances? Is it mad to sell one’s self when it makes Abigail, Henry’s other travel companion, the most money? As a slave, is it mad to join up with the British, against one’s own country men, who are already against you, as Radnor does? These characters, each with his or her own voice, paint a complex picture of the forces for and against Henry. Arvin’s knack for colorful turns of phrase matches the colorful settings and characters they describe. Baltimore, Henry’s first destination leaving home after his mother dies, is a “city of clamorous dazzlement.” Mary, left by both Franklin and her father, a ruthless businessman, sees that “grief came from the knots of unforgiving.” For Henry, “trying to think of what to do is like trying to balance on a greased tightrope.” As mad as he is, Henry is an ingenious character, both as a young man finding his way in a ravaged world, and as Arvin develops him. Mad Boy is a historic dystopia novel. Instead of seeing doom in the future, Arvin finds its origins in the past. But, he also sees “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.” Henry’s quest is a darkly comic one, relying on luck and a plan made up as he goes. Although Henry does not entirely fulfill his promise to his mother, he does succeed in finding freedom for himself.

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